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Need care, will travel: Abortion ban forces Texans across state lines

As abortion rights crumble in Texas and beyond, a clinic just outside the Lone Star State picks up the slack.

By Stephen Paulsen, Courthouse News

SANTA TERESA, N.M. (CN) — To get an abortion, Alicia had to travel more than 600 miles. The 24-year-old and her mother left Dallas last Friday, taking a flight and sleeping at an El Paso motel.

The next morning, they drove in a rental car just across the state border, to the El Paso suburb of Santa Teresa in New Mexico. Here, in a nondescript office park less than a mile from Texas, is the Women’s Reproductive Clinic. For months, it’s been a lifeline for Texans who can no longer get abortions in their home state.

That Friday, Alicia and her mother learned the Supreme Court had  overturned  Roe v. Wade. Alicia was angry. Anti-abortion lawmakers “are not going to help me raise this baby,” she said.

“What if I was homeless?” she said. “Would they expect me to live on the street with it?” (Alicia’s name, like those of other patients in this story, has been changed to protect her safety and privacy, as well as the possibility of any future legal repercussions in Texas.)

Even before the fall of  Roe, Texas had already effectively outlawed abortion. The GOP-controlled Legislature last year  banned abortions past six weeks, using a strange legal loophole that allows private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” the procedure.

On its face, the law was a clear violation of  Roe — but courts largely upheld it on the grounds that private citizens, not state officials, would be enforcing it. Last September, the U.S. Supreme Court  declined to hear a challenge to Texas’ law on these same grounds. Other states, including Oklahoma, soon  adopted the same enforcement mechanism.

Now, it will indeed be state officials going after doctors and patients. Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton  vowed to “immediately” enforce a Texas abortion law from the 1920s, but that plan has been  blocked for now. Even in much more liberal states like Michigan, abortion bans from decades ago are  still on the books.

At least a dozen states have also  passed “trigger laws” designed to automatically ban abortion after  Roe was overturned. Texas’ law, which is set to take effect in July, could  send doctors to prison for life.

As abortion rights crumble nationwide, experts predict that places where abortion remains accessible, including New Mexico, will become “safe harbor” states for desperate patients. At the Women’s Reproductive Clinic last weekend, that dynamic was already playing out.

“I wish women’s voices were more heard and valued,” said Carolina, who had come from Dallas to support her stepdaughter through an abortion. “We need to make our own decisions.”

The patients arrived all morning, most with Texas plates, many with boyfriends or family members. A few had flown, but most had driven at least five hours to receive a procedure that recently was fully legal in Texas.

They left tired, sad, angry and confused. All had their own reasons for why they didn’t want or couldn’t have a child. Elsa, a 25-year-old from Waco, already had kids and had just lifted herself out of poverty. “It was hard getting time off of work” for the procedure, she said. Another patient, from Austin, had been on birth control, but a different medication had messed with it and she had gotten pregnant anyway.

Dr. Franz Theard, the owner of this clinic, said around half of his patients now come from East Texas on the opposite side of the state. Some come from even farther, including Louisiana and Oklahoma. Many arrive on the weekends, when they’re able to take time off for the long journey.

Until recently, Theard also ran a clinic in central El Paso — but “I saw the writing on the wall,” he said. Near the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Republican Governor Greg Abbott  halted abortions in Texas on the grounds that it was ostensibly not a “medically necessary” procedure. When clinics were allowed to start operating again, “we decided not to reopen,” Theard said.

For years before that, Texas lawmakers had  imposed onerous and expensive regulations on abortion clinics, including building requirements and rules requiring clinics to bury or cremate female remains. While some of those laws were ultimately overturned by courts, they still made life difficult for abortion providers and led to the closure of more than half of the state’s clinics.

Theard said he’d also grown tired of rules requiring him to give inaccurate information to patients. “Bullshit information about abortion causing breast cancer and infertility,” he said. “We didn’t feel we were being truthful.”

Patients have found themselves navigating similar hurdles. While looking into abortion options, Elsa, the Waco patient, had accidentally contacted a crisis pregnancy center, a type of group that seeks out patients in need of abortion services and tries to dissuade them, often with disinformation. While abortion clinics can no longer operate in Texas, there are still at least eight crisis pregnancy centers in El Paso alone.

Even after Elsa made it clear she planned to get an abortion, the crisis pregnancy center continued to call and text her. “I told them from the start I didn’t want to have [another child],” she said. “They were trying to change my mind.”

Not long ago, Tess, a 33-year-old medical professional from Houston, could have received an abortion in her hometown. Planned Parenthood has a large center in the city, where until recently it provided the procedure.

She looked into options in Louisiana. Because the state had a 72-hour waiting period, she would have had to miss work or take two trips.

In the end, she spent around $1,200 on airfare, a motel room and a rental car to get an abortion in New Mexico. “I was angry,” she said. “It didn’t seem right at all.”

Even as patients arrived in Santa Teresa, the stress and barriers weren’t yet over. Outside the clinic, a long line of anti-abortion signs spilled along the street:

“Pregnancy is NO Disease”

“SHUN those doing business in the same office park with BABY MURDERERS”

“Celebrate life! Judicially Execute baby murderers”

Norbert Rempe, an anti-abortion protester who lives around 180 miles away in Carlsbad, had placed the signs. He had come here regularly for years, he said.

“We need to abolish abortion like we abolished slavery,” he said. He accused patients of “engaging in murder for hire.”

In the parking lot outside the clinic, employees from a crisis pregnancy center had set up their own signs, instructing people to “CHECK IN HERE.” The notices had a stop-sign symbol on them. While the workers didn’t clearly identify themselves, an email address provided by one employee shows they’re affiliated with Guiding Star, an anti-abortion group.

Asked whether the signs might confuse people, Julie Mendoza, a worker with the group, was noncommittal. “Not really,” she said. She was trying to gives pamphlets to patients. She wouldn’t allow Courthouse News to look at them.

As the sun climbed in the sky on Saturday, Alicia stepped out from her appointment. She called her mother to pick her up. “My emotions are all over the place,” she said.

Alicia already had a kid, a 17-month-old whom a relative was watching. She wants to get married and have another kid some day. But that would be on her own terms — it isn’t up to lawmakers.

“These laws they are passing are fucking bullshit,” she said.

As Texas moves to completely outlaw abortion, support groups have popped up to help patients finance travel out-of-state. Alicia had found one, and she was grateful for their assistance. Otherwise, “I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” she said. “I would have had to use all my savings.”

Still, it had been a long and stressful journey. Across the parking lot, workers from Guiding Star waved and yelled to her.

“I’m ready to go home and lie down,” Alicia said.