Faced with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, Texans looked towards leadership in their state government amidst a combative national dialogue. To many of us, it was clear that Texans needed strong guidance through these difficult times. Instead, the state utilized the pandemic to implement an anti-abortion agenda that left Texans with barriers towards abortion care in clinic settings that haven’t been seen since before Roe V. Wade.
On March 22, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order delaying all procedures that are not “medically necessary” until April 21 in response to the pandemic. Within the list of procedures was abortion. In a press conference, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced the imposition of heavy fines and potential jail time for clinics found in violation of the executive order.
“People can move to other states or go to other states. There’s nothing preventing them from doing that,” he said.
When news of the governor’s executive order broke, the Frontera Fund huddled to determine our next possible steps. What does this mean? What should we do? What does this mean for our community as a whole, but especially the undocumented callers we fund? Our small but mighty group had long been providing funds for abortion in the Rio Grande Valley. Our mission was simple: If you were seeking an abortion to or from the Rio Grande Valley and lacked the financial means to attain one, this fund was for you.
For a state as complex as Texas, it’s important to look at obstacles toward abortion access as a systematic attack instead of a flurry of singular instances. Riding on the infamous House Bill 2 that was contested at the Supreme Court, we’ve seen our share of horrendous anti-abortion legislation: mandatory burial and cremation of fetal tissue in clinic settings, judicial bypass for abortions, restrictions on second trimester abortions, mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods, mandatory counseling in the form of a “women’s right to know” booklet filled with misinformation to dissuade individuals from getting abortions, increase of funding towards crisis pregnancy centers that offer no medical services, and a consistent false dialogue around the criminalization of abortion procedures (see HB16 “born alive bills).
It is important to note however, that although HB 2 became the spotlight for abortion restrictions across the country, there were restrictions that existed before then, including the slash in reproductive health care funding in 2011 targeting Planned Parenthood providers and the deterioration of the safety net for low-income communities across Texas by closing clinics that provided not just abortions, but offered essential services like cervical cancer screenings, breast cancer screenings, and STD testing as well. With the state of Texas leading in the highest uninsured rate among Latinx people, including the highest percentage of cervical cancer, the state continually perpetuates a bleak outlook on reproductive health care.
As the legal battles ensued, we received a number of calls from folks who were unsure of how to proceed. Some of the callers needing an abortion were U.S. citizens who had the necessary funds, could take the time off work, and had reliable transportation and child care—and some were in domestic violence situations, which made secrecy essential. Some traveled out of the state for their abortions. States like Colorado and New Mexico were the closest to attain an abortion under these restrictions. But unlike our undocumented callers, these folks had the paperwork to cross internal checkpoints.
A large part of the missing conversation about abortion access are the folks who can’t even step outside of the Rio Grande Valley without the risk of deportation. Surrounding border communities like the Rio Grande Valley were structural checkpoints handled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The Rio Grande Valley is deemed as a Constitutional-free zone based on parameters that dictate internal checkpoints be placed 100 miles inward. It’s a designation that agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), police, CBP, and the military are fully aware of. Stepping out of these areas is impossible without the right paperwork. These were the dynamics that I, despite being born in the U.S., had to endure while traveling to Mexico to seek health care for myself and my family, crossing the international bridge with a purse filled with medications for each of my family members for symptoms they often described on the phone to me or our doctor.
These calls from undocumented folks were oddly familiar to the calls I would get when the state of Texas passed Senate Bill 4, the notorious anti-sanctuary cities bill that codified agreements between localities and federal immigration officials to detain immigrants who were arrested, and them transfer to a detention facility. The cooperation between federal deportation agents and local police is what spurred undocumented callers to fear traveling to their doctor’s appointment, getting groceries, and picking up their children from school, as there was an increased presence of Border Patrol and police along their routes. Among these were callers who feared visiting a clinic, with only one left in the Rio Grande Valley to get an abortion.
During this time, hundreds of appointments were canceled. Our Fund called clinics, coordinated with abortion funds, abortion partners, and transportation agencies daily in a game of legal tug of war to determine whether abortion could continue in clinic settings. In our experience working on these issues, we knew that while state restrictions did not prevent abortions from happening, they created hardship for Texans attempting to access abortion safely. Disregarding the safety of people seeking abortions during a pandemic by creating unrealistic barriers places Texans in danger because abortion is a time-sensitive and essential procedure. At a time where Texans continue to face the uncertainty of a global pandemic, it is more imperative than ever to create healthy and accessible healthcare options and adopt a framework that should never rely on the state for the entirety of our solutions as it does not live to serve us.
To fight for abortion access, to be able to have children, to parent those children in a healthy environment, the right to sexual pleasure, the right to express our gender how we choose, and to have the bodily autonomy to make all these decisions are tenets of reproductive justice. We owe our work to the Black women who created the framework from which we operate from and continue to utilize in spaces across the country. On International Safe Abortion Day, I envision a world where we no longer have to exist as abortion funds. Where abortions can be provided without restrictions. Until then, our mission is simple: educate, provide funds, lobby, struggle, and fight for the right to have an abortion in a community with love.