Abortion Barriers Hit Latinas the Hardest

For Latinas living in the Texan Rio Grande Valley, abortion access is nearly impossible.

Griselda was demoted from a salaried position to an hourly wage because she had to take time off for her abortion.

Halley had to borrow money and take out a payday loan at 17 percent interest to fund her own procedure.

Ana had to travel over 300 miles to McAllen for an abortion because the wait times at the Austin clinics would have required her to wait until the second trimester, when the procedure would be too expensive.

The stories of these three Latinas from Texas are among those included in an amicus brief filed by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) in the upcoming Supreme Court case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which is scheduled for oral arguments on March 2.

The court’s ruling is set to be the most important abortion decision since Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), with sweeping consequences for the sort of restrictions that states can place on abortion providers.

But the most immediate effects of the decision will be felt disproportionately by one group: Texan Latinas, and especially those living in the Rio Grande Valley. For these women, the NLIRH says, barriers to abortion access have become extreme in the last three years.

In 2013, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed HB 2 into law, requiring abortion providers to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers and to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. The controversial legislation has been the subject of multiple lawsuits and appeals but these requirements were ultimately upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last June. In the process, over half of the abortion clinics in Texas have closed.

Now, the Supreme Court will decide whether or not HB 2’s requirements constitute an “undue burden” to abortion access. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court defined an undue burden as “placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus.” If the Supreme Court backs the Fifth Circuit, Texas could be left with about 10 clinics—one for every 26 thousand square miles.Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of the NLIRH, believes that the public might not realize how disproportionately Latinas would be affected by this case because of stereotypes about the community’s views on abortion.“I think people carry assumptions about Latinas and our opinions about reproductive politics,” she told The Daily Beast.Hispanic women do generally have lower abortion rates than white women or black women but, as the Guttmacher Institute notes, that changes below the poverty line, in which case Latinas have “slightly higher rates than black women.” Pew polling data also shows that Hispanic registered voters are slightly less likely than black and white voters to believe that abortion should be legal.

But the NLIRH has been conducting polling of its own among Latino registered voters, asking more detailed questions about abortion beyond whether or not it should be legal. Two-thirds of their sample of 600, for instance, said they would support a close friend or family member who had an abortion. González-Rojas believes the data suggests that Latinos are less opposed to abortion than outsiders might believe.

For Latinas living in the Rio Grande Valley, the clinic closures and reopenings have made abortion access especially convoluted and, in some cases, impossible.

When Vanessa, a mother of three, learned that the clinics near her in McAllen and Harlingen were closed, she tried to self-induce an abortion with herbs and injections. They didn’t work. The clinic in San Antonio was too far away so she went to Mexico instead but couldn’t get an abortion there, either. In the end, she carried the pregnancy to term and had a child she could not afford to raise.

Vanessa’s story was recounted by Ana DeFrates of the NLIRH to the Dallas Observer last year. Many women in Vanessa’s position cannot share their stories publicly because they risk self-incrimination. But emerging evidence suggests that there are many more stories like hers in Texas.

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A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) estimated that at least 100,000 Texan women have attempted to self-induce an abortion. The study also found that Latinas living near the U.S.-Mexico border were “significantly more likely to have attempted abortion self-induction themselves or know someone who had.” One of the more common methods of self-induction is ingesting misoprostol, an abortion pill that can be purchased in Mexico or on the black market in southern Texas.

“I’d go to Mexico if I had to,” a Latina mother named Emiliana is quoted as saying in the amicus brief. “I know that some people end up going to Mexico.”

There are several interrelated factors these self-induction attempts, black market pills, and furtive trips to Mexico: poverty, citizenship status, insurance coverage, and language barriers.

“It is a confluence of many issues that, if HB 2 were fully enacted, would serve as a de facto ban on abortion for Latinas in the Rio Grande Valley,” González-Rojas told The Daily Beast.

Thirty-eight percent of Texans are Hispanic and the NLIRH estimates that this includes 2.5 million women of reproductive age. The four counties that comprise the Rio Grande Valley at the southern tip of the U.S.-Mexico border are all between 86 and 97 percent Hispanic.According to the Guttmacher Institute, Hispanic women are twice as likely as white women to experience an unintended pregnancy and, per Kaiser Family Foundation data, they are twice as likely to be uninsured in Texas. High rates of unintended pregnancy plus poverty minus health insurance is a recipe for problems accessing abortion.

Due to the closure of clinics post-HB 2, too, many women have to travel longer distances to reach abortion providers. The state’s mandatory 24-hour waiting period can also necessitate multiple trips or taking extra time off from work or school.

For example, Cecilia, a mother of three described in the amicus brief, had to wait until she could inconspicuously take two days off of work to have an abortion for fear of being fired if her employer knew why she was absent.

For undocumented Latinas who cannot get driver’s licenses or cannot afford to travel, getting out of the Rio Grande Valley might not be feasible. And, as Fusion reported, a network of internal border patrol checkpoints has historically put some Latinas in the position of risking deportation to reach abortion providers to the north.

For now, the Fifth Circuit has allowed Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, Texas, to stay open because it is the sole abortion provider in the Rio Grande Valley. The outcome of the upcoming Supreme Court case will determine how likely it is to keep its doors open. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a 5-3 decision will roll back HB 2's requirements but a 4-4 tie will leave the Fifth Circuit's ruling in place.

If the McAllen clinic closes again, Texan Latinas in the Valley may once again have to travel all the way to San Antonio—or risk Mexico—for an abortion.