“I need an abortion”: US women seeking help in Mexico to terminate their pregnancies


At 23 years old with a baby just four months old, Anna* knew she couldn’t afford another pregnancy. But she also knew that in Texas, with some of the most restrictive state abortion laws in the United States, she wasn’t going to be able to interrupt him.

So he found a phone number on social media and simply wrote by WhatsApp: “I need to abort”.

The message was received by Sandra Cardona in Monterrey, Mexico.

Cardona founded six years ago in the capital of the northern state of Nuevo León the Network I need to abort, which he named precisely so that whoever needed it could find it easily on Google and on social networks. “She was not going to put ‘Las flores del campo’ or ‘Cosita bella'”, she tells BBC Mundo with humor.

And since then, every week she assists women who choose to end their early pregnancies with drugs, like Anna, who arrived in Monterrey one afternoon “with her little baby, had it at night (the abortion) and left in the morning” , Cardona tells BBC Mundo. “She came with a friend and no one else knew anything.”

Are self-managed abortionswhich are carried out with over-the-counter pills in Mexico and without having to go to a clinic, without the need for a surgical procedure.

“Only me I accompany 120 to 140 women a month, and my partnera between 140 and 160“, bill. “And we are a network of 17 people.”

“They contact us, (saying) that they want medicine and we send it to them. Others come and don’t stay, they just want the medication and for us to explain (the procedure). And some want to stay and that we accompany them”, she continues.

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Texas SB8 is known as “the heartbeat law.”

attend a Monterey womenmigrants heading north and, increasingly, Americansespecially from the state across the border, Texas.

“A year or so ago I attended the first one. I don’t speak English, but with the help of Google we made ourselves understood. And since Texas, the demand has grown a lot.”

The “testing ground of post-Roe USA”

With “the Texas thing” Cardona refers to the fact that in September of last year, almost at the same time that the Supreme Court of Justice in a historic ruling for Mexico decriminalized voluntary abortion, the Texas Legislature —the state body in charge of the legislative power — endorsed what is known as “the law of the heartbeat”.

Senate Bill 8 (SB8) prohibits termination of pregnancy if the doctor can detect embryonic or fetal heart activity, which usually occurs after the sixth week, a point at which many women do not yet know they are pregnant.

“The life of every unborn child whose heart beats will be saved from the ravages of abortion,” celebrated the governor of Texas, the Republican Greg Abbottadding to the satisfaction of conservative groups.

An anti-abortion activist holds a crucifix in front of Bans Off Our Bodies protesters outside City Hall in Houston, Texas, on May 14, 2022.

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As much controversy as the deadline generates its particular mechanism to enforce it.

The rule allows citizens —whether or not they are in the state— sue anyone who performs an abortion in civil proceedings beyond that time when a doctor can detect embryonic heart activity, who “help or be an accomplice” in it, and even whoever “intends to help or be an accomplice”without clarifying what exactly is meant by the latter.

The woman whose pregnancy is interrupted is exempt.

Y This Friday the panorama turnedeither more restrictive now than the Supreme Court revokedRoe vs. Wadethe historic decision of 1973 that guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion in the country.

The legal precedent made it impossible for the states to prohibit the procedure while the fetus was not viable outside the uterus (what today is considered to occur around the 23rd week of pregnancy), something that the Texas law has already challenged, overcoming all the obstacles presented in the courts—the state and US Supreme Courts included.

But now, with the constitutional protection overturned, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, announced: “Today the question of abortion returns to the states. And in Texas, that question has already been answered: abortion is illegal here“.

It was made possible by a trigger or “trigger” law that Texas, like 12 other states, had ready to go into effect to further limit the practice.

Pro-choice protesters outside City Hall in Houston, Texas, on May 14, 2022.

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Before reaching this point, the number of abortions in Texas it fell. According to preliminary data from the state Health and Human Services Commission, from September to December of last year the number dropped by 46% compared to the same period in 2020. Data for 2022 is not yet available.

“If you want to know what the post-Roe United States will be like, Texas is a good testing ground,” Jackie Dilworth, a Whole Women’s Health activist, tells BBC Mundo.

Woman dressed as a character from "The Handmaid

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The fact that the number of abortions in Texas has decreased does not necessarily mean that there are fewer, but simply that they are done elsewhere or in another way.

And among the growing number of Texans who seek to end their pregnancies outside the state are those who, due to proximity and facilities, have resorted to the help of Mexico.

“Abortion” and a cross-border network

Although there are no official figures, Cardona already notices it. He can’t cope answering messages that arrive from the United States through WhatsApp and Telegram, but also through his network accounts on TikTok, Instagram, FaceBook and Twitter, she says.

And he is also preparing the study they have on the second floor of their house. “We are conditioning it for women who come and cannot return, or need to have an abortion outside the home,” she explains. Until now “we lent our bedroom”, but “we saw the need to open one more space”. They hope to have it ready by the end of the month. It will be the “abortion”, He says.

They are not the only ones that are reinforcing their services. There is a whole network of groups and activists in the border area that has been doing it for months.

Border crossing between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.

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There is a network of organizations working on both sides of the border.

“We are around 10 organizations in binational agreement“, tells BBC Mundo Mariela Castro, from Marea Verde Chihuahua, a Mexican state that also borders Texas.

According to Castro, it is not only a consequence of Texas legislation. The reduction of reproductive health services due to lack of funding in other states, such as Arizona and New Mexicois what has led to this coordinated work being strengthened and from Mexico supporting more and more American women who require abortions.

It wasn’t always like this. Before, it was Mexican women with sufficient economic resources and with the help of solidarity networks who went to US border cities to have abortions in clinics.

“However, in our states we continue to have the problem that abortion is not yet law. What has allowed women to access safe abortions is that the networks of companions, of women who provide medical abortion services, have been growing,” says Castro.

Indeed, although the Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico declared it unconstitutional to imprison women for having an abortion, only four entities in the country authorize the voluntary interruption of pregnancy until the 12th week: Mexico City (since 2007), Oaxaca (2019), Veracruz and Hidalgo (2021).

In Mexico there are still no initiatives for clinical abortion“, clarifies Verónica Cruz, founder of Las Libres in Guanajuato.

Misoprostol

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As an alternative, groups like the Red I Need Abortar, Marea Verde Chihuahua, and the other organizations that Castro mentioned earlier, help women abort with misoprostol.

It is a drug to prevent ulcers but whose use to end pregnancies is supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO).

In Mexico you can buy it in pharmacies without a prescription.although these organizations usually obtain it through donations from international entities.

In the United States, it has been approved since 2000 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to end pregnancies with a prescription. And since the requirement to administer it in person was eliminated in December of last year, the prescription can be obtained through a teleconsultation.

Nevertheless, in more than half of the states from USA there are local limitations to medical abortion —such as the need for a doctor to be in the same room—, something that makes self-managed interruptions difficult or impossible.

They are “medically unnecessary restrictions imposed by politicians out of touch with reality,” said Jacqueline Ayers, vice president of Planned Parenthood, a sexual and reproductive health organization that offers its services in the country and globally.

Dr. Franz Theard prepares doses of mifepristone at the Women's Reproductive Clinic in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, on May 7, 2022.

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In Texas in particular, the restrictions of the “law of the heartbeat” are added to those imposed by another law that prohibits any manufacturer, supplier or individual from sending pills that can induce abortion by mail. (Although it does not mean that it does not happen, as we will see later).

As a result, some Texans seeking abortion help in Mexico often cross into border municipalities like Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua for misoprostol, Castro says.

Pills and “accompaniment”

Some buy it on their own at pharmacies. Others contact companions beforehand, to whom Marea Verde sends the drugs.

Pharmacy advertisement in Nogales, Mexico, bordering Arizona.

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“In Chihuahua we have also created shelters, in case a woman comes and needs to have a space because she doesn’t know anyone, she doesn’t have friends on this side of the border,” says Mariela Castro, from Marea Verde.

Then comes the “accompaniment”, which can be in person or virtual.

First, the procedure is explained to them — “we always provide the information following the WHO, we are not inventing protocols,” Cardona emphasizes —, they are warned of what is going to happen to their body and possible side effects.

“Sometimes they want to be working on their computer, reading something, watching TV. We are with them for whatever they need,” explains Cardona.

When it is in person, “if they start to feel pain, they are given massages, we put hot things on them. We made socks, we put rice inside them to heat them in the microwave so that they can put them on their belly”, he continues.

And in all cases, “we answer all your doubts, all your fears”.

— And what doubts do you have? What are they afraid of?

— They ask if they can die, if they are going to bleed to death.

Multiple studies have confirmed that less than 1% of patients experience serious complications with medical abortion, a considerably lower percentage than complications with childbirth.

— And you do not run any legal risk offering this service?

— Here in Mexico, the Supreme Court of Justice has already said that no woman can be criminalized for having an abortion. And giving information is not a crime.

“super secure” networks

But on other occasions, it borders on the underground, by making women obtain misoprostol without crossing the border.

“The other option is that of super-secure networks to put these pills in the hands of women who need them in Texas, but also in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois. The medication is delivered to their homes through various safe routes and virtual accompaniment is provided from Mexico,” explains Verónica Cruz, from Las Libres, a pioneer in the defense of medical abortion in Mexico.

And it is that not all of them have the capacity to mobilize. Cardona recalls the case of a woman who contacted them from Texas recommended by a colleague who had already been treated.

“He told me that he had only four days after arriving in the United States. She was a migrant and had been raped on the way. She had passed through Monterrey, she could have come to us, but then her priority was to get to Texas. And when she got there, she couldn’t get (aborted) anymore,” she says. And it is that the Texas legislation does not make exceptions or in cases of rape or incest.

They managed to get it done with the misoprostol and the accompaniment was by messages.

Three women staying at the "El Buen Pastor" Methodist Church Migrant Shelter take a walk on June 16, 2019 in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico.  PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images

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Not all women can mobilize for abortions outside of Texas. This is the case of undocumented immigrants.

Jane*, a 22-year-old artist from San Antonio, Texas, also ended an early pregnancy with pills from Mexico. It was her second abortion.

“Are 12 pills total, in three rounds: you take four and wait three hours, then another four and wait another three hours, and take the other four. About two hours later you start to feel the effects”, he explains. “It is very painful: it causes nausea, diarrhea, vomiting. It’s very hard on your body, but it’s necessary and it basically opens up your cervix and helps expel whatever’s in there.”

To accompany her in the process, the group she had contacted assigned her “a kind of social worker.”

Pro-choice protest in New York on October 2, 2021.

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She says she hopes her testimony will help destigmatize self-managed abortion. “You can do it at home. You just have to make sure that there is someone with you who can take you to the hospital” in case it is necessary.

“I think there are many women who would like to speak up (and tell their story) but unfortunately they are scared and silenced by everything that is happening in Texas right now. In the US, as a society, we are going backwards.”

Now she helps other women in the state who need an abortion to get in touch with the organization that assisted her and when she has extra misoprostol, she sends it herself.

He assures that, if he had not had the option of using the pills from Mexico, he would have found another alternative. “I have friends and family who would have lent me money” to go to another state with less restrictive legislation.

This is another option for women who need an abortion and cannot do so where they live.

While representatives of organizations with clinics in Texas confirm to BBC Mundo that since the “heartbeat law” came into force they have had to reject “hundreds, thousands of patients because they are not eligible”, the health centers offering pregnancy termination services in New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri and Oklahoma have seen a significant increase in Texan patients.

An employee writes down codes on a calendar at Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 19, 2022.

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The restriction of abortion in Texas has caused many clinics in adjoining states to be inundated with Texas patients.

According to data collected by Planned Parenthood between September 1 and December 31, 2021, the increase was already 800% compared to the same period in 2020.

The same organizations that work in the field of reproductive health and rights in the US are creating funds to help make that happen.

With this financing, plane tickets are bought, taxis and other expenses are paid, and members of these organizations receive the women at the destination airport, take them to the clinics, and accompany them.

At the same time that several states have been restricting access to abortion, others, in view of the fact that the demand for patients from these could increase if the Roe vs. Wadeare reinforcing their services and infrastructure, including California and New Jersey.

“It’s a crazy thing. We always saw the United States as an example country in this matter“, says Verónica Cruz, from Las Libres in Guanajuato. “Now it’s the world upside down“.


* Fictitious names chosen to protect the identity of the protagonists.


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