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Texas' 'trigger ban' takes effect. Rio Grande Valley abortion advocates remain undeterred.

Protestors in front of McAllen City Hall following the Supreme Court decision in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson.
Carolina Cuellar
Protestors in front of McAllen City Hall following the Supreme Court decision in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson.

In the Rio Grande Valley, about a month before Texas implemented the anti-abortion Senate Bill 8, Edinburg’s City Council voted on whether to pass a local ordinance to outlaw abortion in Edinburg.

In response, abortion supporters filled the town hall and the initiative failed.

“That was an instance that really showed that there is an overwhelming amount of folks who are pro-choice in the community who are very vocal and organized,” Alexis Bay, cofounder of Frontera Fund, said. And they’ve kept that energy.

She said those who showed up to combat the ordinance then — including South Texans for Reproductive and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice — continue working to protect abortion access in the Valley.

“Nothing happens without community. So it's been absolutely vital. It's the root, it’s the trunk. It has been absolutely necessary in getting through this year,” Bay said.

The ordinance foreshadowed a year of regressive changes to abortion rights. Now, little more than a year later, Texas’ trigger ban is in effect, formalizing what Valley advocates already knew — abortion is illegal.

“It's very much the reality of what people and women and families are experiencing already and have been for a while here in south Texas,” said Michelle Vallejo, Rio Grande Valley native and congressional candidate for Texas’ 15th district.

As of Thursday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton may punish abortion fund organizations, like Frontera Fund, or anyone who aids an abortion with a penalty of at least $100,000 per procedure. Those who perform a successful abortion are guilty of a first-degree felony.

The new law makes it virtually impossible for abortion funds to assist people seeking one. Vallejo said she never expected lawmakers to take it this far and knows how hard advocates have already struggled these past few years.

“They've been having to fight where they haven't seen any improvement in the environment,” Vallejo said.

But they’re not done fighting.

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Rockie Gonzalez, another Frontera Fund founder, just launched The Regain, Expand, and Decriminalize (R.E.D.) Moon Project. The initiative is a political advocacy group focused on decriminalizing and protecting abortion on a local level.

And in response to the trigger ban, Frontera Fund and other abortion funds filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Ken Paxton, and others, two days before it went into effect.

“Our greatest hope is to be able to at least fund people to fly out of Texas or drive out of Texas and receive abortions,” Bay said.

It argues that funding access to out-of-state abortion services is free speech and therefore protected by the constitution.

All of this follows the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade which is what allowed the ban to go into effect.

But even before the ruling, some local Valley officials demonstrated how far they’d go.

Following Senate Bill 8’s passing last year — which allows everyday citizens to sue those aiding an abortion for at least $10,000 but exempts the person who sought the abortion — Starr County District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez pursued a murder charge against a woman named Lizelle Herrera for having a “self-induced” abortion.

However, the Texas murder statute protects women who end their own pregnancies.

Ramirez said the case stemmed from a report made by a local hospital to police in January.

Almost immediately after the arrest, abortion advocates raised funds for her release and protested outside the jail.

“The community really came together to get her out. And so it really was a coordinated effort across groups in the Valley in Texas, and even some national groups,” Bay said.

Despite the indictment stating, “she did then and there intentionally and knowingly cause the death of an individual J.A.H. by a self-induced abortion,” Ramirez dropped the case.

He justified his decision in a statement, “In reviewing applicable Texas law, it is clear that Ms. Herrera cannot and should not be prosecuted for the allegation against her.”

Texas While the charge wasn’t under Senate Bill 8, many believe the restrictive law emboldened the district attorney to take such action.

Bay said Herrera’s case shows how increasingly restrictive legislation will further encourage anti-abortion activists to begin criminalizing those seeking the procedure.

“What happened to Lizelle is the great possibility of what could happen to anyone in Texas, but especially to the most vulnerable here in south Texas,” she said.

The encroachment on people’s right to abortion had been escalating long before Senate Bill 8 and even before the latest legislative blow, the Valley’s access was more limited than most.

In a region with more than a million residents spanning four counties, only one clinic, Whole Woman’s Health of McAllen, performed the procedure within more than 200 miles.

After a leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson almost guaranteed the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the clinic shut its doors.

Despite this and the threat of legal peril for those like Frontera Fund, they continue finding ways to make it work.

“We're still going to be looking towards providing practical financial support to people in our community right now we're simply identifying where we can provide that support without breaking the law,” she added.

Over the past few years, the legal landscape around abortion has grown increasingly treacherous. But organizations continue filing appeals and lawsuits to fight the slew of anti-abortion legislation, including Texas’ trigger ban.

“Texas can pass as many laws as it wants, it's not going to stop us from trying to find ways to provide practical support to our community,” Bay said.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.