The Secret Abortions of Texas

Shortly after nine o’clock on the morning of June 24th, a woman in her forties, whom I’ll call Luisa, arrived for her appointment at an abortion clinic in Texas. Inside the waiting room, a space bedecked with posters of women rendered in white, red, and blue, she filled out a series of mandated forms, and

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Shortly after nine o’clock on the morning of June 24th, a woman in her forties, whom I’ll call Luisa, arrived for her appointment at an abortion clinic in Texas. Inside the waiting room, a space bedecked with posters of women rendered in white, red, and blue, she filled out a series of mandated forms, and was escorted to the back of the facility, where dozens of other patients waited. A single mother of three who moved to the U.S. several years ago, Luisa had visited the clinic the previous day to get a sonogram, which revealed that she was less than six weeks pregnant, the legal limit to have an abortion in Texas at the time. Per state law, however, she needed to wait at least twenty-four hours before the procedure could take place.

Minutes after Luisa’s arrival, the Supreme Court issued its ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. Few of the patients knew that the Justices had the authority to take away women’s right to abortion. But when the clinic’s staff broke into tears, it became clear that the morning would not unfold as planned. Sitting alongside other patients, in a row of chairs set against a wall, Luisa looked around nervously. She spoke English haltingly and had never heard of Roe v. Wade. When one of the nurses kneeled by her side to offer an explanation, Luisa froze, in disbelief. Despondent, she left the clinic. As she waited for a ride outside, Luisa recalled that a friend of hers had told her, “If things don’t work out at the clinic, you can always call this man.” Luisa’s friend gave her his number and said that she had gotten an abortion at home with pills that he had provided. Already struggling to support her children, she felt that she was running out of options.

Since the fall of Roe, six months ago, at least sixty-six clinics in fifteen states have closed, limiting the choices of nearly twenty-two million women of reproductive age who reside in them. People from Texas who have the financial means have flown to states like New York or California, where abortion remains legal, to receive the procedure. Others, with fewer resources, have driven to New Mexico, Kansas, or Colorado, nearby states where abortion is also legal. But, for undocumented women, who do not have the resources to travel long distances, the fear of being criminalized, and potentially deported, has become far greater—and so has the need to use underground abortion networks, where the risk of exposure is less.

Several days after Roe was overturned, Luisa picked up her phone and called the man with the pills. She said that he initially asked for a hundred and fifty dollars, then raised the price to a hundred and eighty and eventually to two hundred. All Luisa knew about him was that he was from Mexico, but she agreed to pay the full price and gave him her address. At Luisa’s home, the man handed her seven pills, instructed her to take five of them orally and place two more in her vagina. She said that he offered to do so himself, but Luisa declined. She didn’t know if the man was a doctor or if he had any kind of medical training. After handing him the cash, she inserted some of the pills vaginally, then took the rest that same day. (The man, who declined to be interviewed, denied selling Luisa the pills.)

At first, Luisa felt nothing and went to sleep, but by the next morning she could barely walk. Her vision was cloudy, and she felt weak and dizzy. At home with two of her three children, she lost consciousness. Luisa didn’t know it at the time, but the man’s instructions deviated from those of the Food and Drug Administration. A medication abortion typically involves taking two hundred milligrams of mifepristone, which blocks progesterone, on the first day. On the second or third day, the patient follows up with eight hundred micrograms of misoprostol, which causes uterine contractions. The F.D.A. recommends that the pills be taken until ten weeks of gestation and under the supervision of a health-care provider. Luisa had no idea what medicine, nor what amount, she had taken.

Sitting at home on a recent Tuesday, Luisa recalled how it took her two days to fully recover, and the heavy bleeding continued for two more weeks—far longer than it should have. After a medication abortion, many women experience heavy cramps and bleeding for a few days. If the bleeding persists, or if they experience prolonged nausea, fever, or diarrhea, it is recommended that they visit a doctor to rule out any serious complications. But, with the overturning of Roe, people in Luisa’s situation fear that calling a doctor or visiting an emergency room could result in their arrest.

Luisa also lacked the money to pay a doctor. Beyond rent, her salary primarily went to paying someone to watch her children during the holidays: a woman who charged twenty-five dollars a day per child and, in addition to caring for Luisa’s sons, looked after three others. With her child tax credit, she had bought a used midsize car, and, to make ends meet, she and her children had recently moved to a small apartment in a complex where residents had complained of flooding and busted pipes, moldy surfaces, termites, bedbugs, and rats.

When I visited Luisa and her children in their new apartment, there were some boxes left to unpack, but she had just finished assembling the furniture that she had brought from her previous home—faux-leather sofas, a button-tufted headboard, two king-size mattresses and a glass dining set—which she had paid for in monthly installments over several years. The walls were decorated with large, glittery canvases inscribed with phrases printed in cursive: “Be Daring My Darling” and “She Lived a Life She Loved.” When I asked Luisa if she understood their meaning, she responded with an amused smile: “No.”

Her limited command of English made it hard for her to help her eight-year-old son with homework. This year, his school had nearly expelled him; he constantly disobeyed his teacher’s orders and seemed to be learning next to nothing in class. At home, she spent most of her evenings trying to get him to obey her. As we spoke, the boy, with brown eyes and a curly undercut, repeatedly stormed out of the apartment after she ordered him to stay home.

Halfway into our conversation, Luisa’s phone rang, and she rushed to answer the call. “What are you up to? Aren’t you coming?” she asked, in a hushed voice. When Luisa hung up, she explained that her boyfriend was the one on the other line. They had been dating for almost two years. At times, their relationship felt unsteady, she said. Having the child was never an option for her, but her boyfriend was of a different opinion. “He wanted it, as long as it was a girl,” she said. “But how could I have another child?” She let the question hang before adding, “Not in these conditions.”

A woman whom I’ll call Rosa has the benefits of citizenship, as well as family support. At twenty-seven, she still lives with her parents in the home where she grew up, in Texas. Her sisters, Rosa told me, were her confidantes. Every time she went on a date, they waved her goodbye with a “Cuídate”—“Take care of yourself.” So, when Rosa began to feel ill in mid-July, and nearly fainted at work, she asked her older sister for a pregnancy test. Sitting on the toilet of her home, her eyes fixed on the test’s results window, she watched two red lines emerge. It cannot be, she thought. She hoped that the test might have been too old to use, even though its expiration date had not passed. Rosa asked her sister, who was waiting outside the bathroom, to bring another test. The results were the same. Ya me chingué, she told herself—I’m fucked.

Rosa initially considered raising the child by herself, but she and her siblings had been on welfare as children, and those years weighed heavily on her. “I did not want to rely on the state’s help,” Rosa told me. “I’ve already lived through that.”

Rosa and her sisters huddled around her laptop, typing searches for abortion providers outside of Texas. They had considered trying to buy pills, but they were convinced that their sister could end up in jail, or be considered a murderer, for having an abortion in her home state—so convinced that they closed the laptop after a few minutes, out of fear that their searches would be tracked. Even typing the word “abortion” online seemed like a risk. What better way, the sisters thought, to go after women in Rosa’s situation than to follow their digital footprint.

An arrest in Texas terrified Rosa and her sisters. Lizelle Herrera, a woman roughly their age, had been briefly jailed in April, two months before the overturning of Roe, and charged with murder for causing “the death of an individual by self-induced abortion.” The hospital where Herrera had checked in after taking abortion pills had reported her to the sheriff’s office. In a county where the median household income was roughly thirty-three thousand dollars a year, Herrera’s bond had been set at half a million dollars.

The local district attorney eventually concluded that Herrera could not be prosecuted under Texas law for obtaining an abortion. After a few days, the charges against her were dropped, but fear and confusion surrounding the law remained. “It’s a feeling of helplessness,” Rosa told me. “A feeling of knowing that you have no place to go, so you begin to panic and ask yourself, Who do you trust? Where do you turn to? Who do you seek help from?”

Together with her sisters, Rosa agreed that crossing the border into Mexico and trying to obtain an abortion there was the best option. But the youngest of them had heard rumors that Texas law-enforcement officials were now planning to perform pregnancy tests at border crossings. The rumor, which turned out to be false, caused Rosa to panic. “I’m going to get caught,” she told her sisters, her voice breaking. “What happens if they find out?”

The following day, after a full night’s sleep, Rosa decided that being subjected to a pregnancy test at the border wasn’t as threatening as she feared. That afternoon, she and her older sister crossed the border and visited a Mexican doctor who confirmed that she was five weeks pregnant. When Rosa asked him if he could perform the abortion, the doctor shook his head and declined to name anyone who would, but offered some advice: “If you’re thinking about doing it, do it now.”

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