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Border Town Women Turn To Mexico For Abortion Pill

David Martin Davies

Texans are learning to live with a new anti-abortion law, which will shut down 37 of the state’s 42 abortion clinics. The law bans abortion after 20 weeks, requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, restricts the use of the abortion drug RU-486 and requires clinics meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers. 

For the border region of the Rio Grande Valley, this means women will have little choice but to turn to dangerous alternatives to deal with an unwanted pregnancy.

In the Mexican town of Matamoros a costumed grandfatherly pharmacist dances in the street to attract customers onto a boulevard lined with pharmacies. This is where women from Texas come looking for a pill that will terminate their unwanted pregnancies.

Abortion is illegal in Mexico. A pharmacist that didn’t want to be identified says he’s heard of the new anti-abortion laws passed in Texas, but he says that won’t stop what’s become a profitable trade in this Mexican border town.

“They can get [a pill] at any pharmacy because that medication is not a contra medication – we can sell it without a prescription, so, on any pharmacy. [At] $200 dollars, it’s expensive,” he says.

The women come to buy the drug misoprostol.

According to the International Women’s Health Coalition, misoprostol is widely used around the world as a black market method to end a pregnancy. But misused, it can cause severe abdominal pain and complications.

Credit David Martin Davies
Patricio Gonzalez, CEO of Planned Parenthood in the Rio Grande Valley.

“They can have severe bleeding. Infections,” explains Patricio Gonzalez, the CEO of Planned Parenthood in the Rio Grande Valley.

“It’s unsupervised medically, and they don’t know what pills they are really getting. It may be the medication to induce an abortion, and it may not be,” Gonzalez says.

Gonzalez says in the last two years a growing number of women on the Texas border turned to underground reproductive healthcare because of the 2011 cuts to the Texas Women’s Health Program by the Texas legislature. That forced Planned Parenthood to shut half of its clinics in the Rio Grande Valley.

That meant a loss of free or low cost reproductive health care and cancer screenings to about 10,000 women.

With the passage of the new restrictive abortion laws, qualified women’s health care will be even harder to find here. The two abortion providers in the Rio Grande Valley say they will close down.

Amy Hagstrom-Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health explains, “This bill that was just signed is crafted as a pretty perfect storm to close clinics down.”

Hagstrom-Miller says the biggest obstacle the new law creates is the requirement that an abortion providing doctor have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic.

“Hidalgo County is a federally recognized underserved community for medicine in general so it’s very difficult for us to find local providers,” Hagstrom-Miller says. “Oftentimes we fly people in from different parts of Texas. It’s very difficult to get those folks admitting privileges.”

Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide abortions in the Rio Grande Valley, but Gonzalez said if the other providers do close their doors – he might explore making the required renovations, which can be expensive. Their cancer screening room is small, about twelve by ten feet. That’s space enough for the examination table, equipment and cabinets, but it’s not big enough for abortions, according to the new law.

“The legislature wants [the rooms] tripled – quadrupled in size – the hallways have to be wider – and what does that do for women’s health? Nothing,” he says.  

As Gonzales walks through clinic, pass a handmade sign is visible on the break room table. Ready for the next protest, it reads: “Keep your Rosaries out of My Ovaries.” And it’s proof that even though the law has been passed - the fight isn’t over.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi