(Editor’s note: This story was produced as part of the Puente News Collaborative, a bi-national partnership of news organizations in Ciudad Juárez and El Paso.)
By Veronica Martinez/La Verdad and Victoria Rossi/El Paso Matters
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Lucero drove across the Bridge of the Americas alone. The cramps the abortion clinic’s staff told her to expect were already creeping into her abdomen.
Behind her was El Paso, where at 23, she’d just received an abortion at the Hill Top Women’s Reproductive Clinic. Ahead was Ciudad Juárez, her home, where in the surrounding state of Chihuahua, abortions are a criminal offense.
Lucero, who has asked to withhold her full name for this story, had considered flying to Mexico City. It was 2017 and abortions had been legal there for 10 years, but she weighed the costs: Two plane tickets, the price of food and lodging — not to mention having to explain her sudden trip to the country’s capital.
Meanwhile, the drive to El Paso could take half an hour. With her tourist visa, she could enter Texas with no issue. She’d be back home the same day without anyone knowing what she had done.
As she crossed the border into Juárez, her fear mounted. “Please, please don’t let this happen,” she remembered telling herself, worried that she might faint or hemorrhage and be forced to go to a hospital in Juárez. She couldn’t count on doctor-patient confidentiality: Anyone who realized she’d had an abortion could report her to the police. “What if I get caught?”
Watch: Abortion access on the Texas-Chihuahua border
While Lucero traveled north for her abortion, many El Pasoans turn south. In Juárez, they find cheap, easy access to misoprostol, an abortion-inducing medication that is sold over the counter as an ulcer treatment at many Mexican pharmacies — a welcome solution for those willing to have abortions outside a health care setting, as tightening legal restrictions make the procedures tougher to come by in Texas clinics.
In the Paso del Norte region, fronterizas on both sides of the Rio Grande have long looked across the border to end their pregnancies on terms they can’t always choose at home.
Now, however, Juarenses must look elsewhere. The U.S. land border remains closed to most Mexican nationals, and in March 2020, El Paso lost all abortion services.
The consequences of El Paso’s barren abortion landscape, along with the pandemic-era closure of the U.S. border, have rippled across the Rio Grande. In the 15 months that El Paso’s Planned Parenthood offered abortion services, about 3% of its patients were from Mexico, according to the clinic. But the Texas city is no longer a legal haven for people like Lucero, who once came to El Paso to have abortions without fear of prosecution.
El Pasoans, meanwhile, could soon rely all the more on Juárez for abortion pills.
On Sept. 1, a new Texas law will effectively ban state clinics from performing abortions roughly six weeks after conception — as soon as cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo, and before many know they are pregnant. With dwindling abortion access, more El Pasoans seeking abortions may choose to cross the border if the law, known as Senate Bill 8, takes effect.
Texas legal restrictions
Over the last two decades, Texas state lawmakers have enacted increasingly strict regulations on abortion providers.
In 2013, after the passage of House Bill 2, which imposed hospital-like standards on abortion facilities, two El Paso clinics temporarily closed and procedures in the county dropped by 40%. Though the Supreme Court struck down the measure in 2016, other restrictions have remained in place. By 2017, about 96% of Texas counties had no abortion clinics.
El Paso was an exception until the pandemic. Then, in March 2020, the Planned Parenthood physicians who’d once flown to El Paso twice a month to perform abortions stopped coming due to COVID safety concerns. That month, El Paso’s last remaining abortion provider — the Hill Top Women’s Reproductive Clinic, where Lucero received her abortion — shuttered without explanation.
Stunz’s boyfriend was from Juárez and visited regularly. She told him about misoprostol and asked him to buy it for her. “It was the least he could do,” she said.
For five hours after taking a second round of misoprostol, she huddled at home, her legs curled into her chest, as cramps that felt like a knife twisting within her uterus came and went. Her temperature rose to a fever, then chills. Roiled with nausea, she vomited, then worried she’d thrown up the medication. Finally, she fell asleep.
Fever, abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding are common side effects after taking misoprostol, according to the WHO. The Mayo Clinic states that the medication can also cause nausea and vomiting. In the moment, however, that didn’t make it any less frightening.
Before moving to El Paso, Stunz had lived in Portland, Oregon, where one of her friends was able to get an abortion the day after learning she was pregnant. The procedure was cheap, too, Stunz recalled. Unlike Texas, Oregon allows private insurance to cover abortions, and also has a state insurance program that will fund the procedure. “It’s totally opposite sides of the spectrum.”
Had she been pregnant in Portland, she said, she would have gone to one of the city’s many Planned Parenthoods. “If one clinic is a little busy, there’s like, four more that would be a 10-minute bus ride away.”
There, she said, she would have felt supported. She wouldn’t have needed her abusive boyfriend’s help. She might even have felt empowered.
“Why (does it) even fucking have to be so much harder than it is in Portland? Like, that makes me fucking angry. That we’re still having this debate,” she said. “That women still have to deal with these kinds of regulations on their bodies is fucking crazy.”
In Portland, she said, “no one’s standing there trying to make shit harder for you like in El Paso, or just in Texas. I’m glad I could at least get that shit for cheap in Juárez, you know? I’m glad there was at least that.”
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