Defending abortion rights in the Rio Grande Valley, Interview with Nancy Cárdenas Peña


Nancy Cardenás Peña is a board member of Frontera Fund, an abortion access resource for Texans seeking abortion. Her work is at the intersection of reproductive justice and immigration in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas.

BTC: Could you tell us about the current social and economic conditions of the Rio Grande Valley area? How accessible was abortion before SB 8 went into effect? 

Nancy: Sure. How do I begin to describe this…It’s a unique relationship that The Valley has with the rest of Texas, I’ll say that. It doesn’t seem like the resources are being invested in The Valley like they should be. We’re a massive region, over a million people live there, and we still don’t have the infrastructure to support mass transportation or other things. We do still have neighborhoods here that struggle to attain basic services like electricity and water. But it seems like The Valley is commonly used as this political token in the governor’s race. We’ve never seen the governor here so many times in The Valley. It’s because he’s touting “operation lone star” which is his immigration program. He is trying to depict The Valley as this immigration crisis, which it’s not. It definitely isn’t. I live a mile from the border wall and there’s nothing happening. It’s infuriating, right, that The Valley isn’t getting the attention it deserves. As far as abortion access goes, it was already difficult enough. Even though we talk a lot about SB 8, SB 8 didn’t happen overnight. The foundation to create and establish SB 8 was definitely a lot of years in the making. We saw cuts to the reproductive health care net back in 2012 that definitely affected people’s access to basic reproductive healthcare services. It wasn’t just the abortion clinics that were affected, there were other clinics that weren’t even offering abortion but were people’s only resources in areas like the RGV. Then thanks to HB 2, we had two clinics that were cut down to one. So a region that already struggled with access to healthcare was only left with one abortion clinic. That clinic is still operating today, but it’s under an incredible strain. So, you know, access wasn’t looking all that great. And this is definitely a world where Roe still exists, and Roe is still present, but these barriers are very much existing in areas like the RGV.

BTC: What does your day-to-day work entail?  How are you organizing and helping women in the Rio Grande Valley area?  Could you tell us about your work and the colonias?

Nancy: Yeah, so, I wear multiple hats, as is probably the case with a lot of people who do this work. So I do lobbying and advocacy for one organization and that is on the intersection of abortion and immigration. There’s definitely a lot of education around that, which is making sure that folks have the tools to advocate for themselves, storytelling trainings, advocacy trainings, and all of that in both Austin, Texas and Washington, DC. We do have regular trainings with folks who live in the RGV regardless of immigration status, who should be able to tell their own stories. We definitely work a lot with those communities. And of course, we are there during legislative sessions, for every abortion and immigration bill. As you can probably imagine, last year was particularly difficult as we had one regular session and three special sessions, which is kind of unheard of here in Texas. We had a legislative session that lasted almost a year. So that definitely took a toll. And then I’m also on the board of an abortion fund. We try our best to ensure that people here in the RGV have access to the abortion care that they need regardless of income and immigration status. We used to just focus on the RGV and we’re still definitely serving the entire RGV. But because of SB 8 we’ve extended our capacity to the entire state of Texas for anyone who may be undocumented. 

 BTC: How has the Hyde Amendment and defunding of family planning care since 2011 in Texas impacted access not only to abortions but to critical medical care for women? 

Nancy: So when we talk about the Hyde Amendment we also have to realize that Texas has its own Hyde Amendment. It was passed a couple of sessions ago (I think it’s HB 214. Don’t quote me on that, there’s so many bills!) We have our own version of the HA that we would still have to tackle if any sort of changes were to be made to the HA at the federal level. The Valley is incredibly special when it comes to these conversations because the first known victim of the HA, Rosie Jimenez, is from McAllen, Texas. We often think about her in the work we do. We push every single legislative session and educate as many folks as we can about Rosie’s Law. It is a law that could help provide access to abortion care to people who are on Medicaid and insurance programs in the state of Texas. So that’s the work that we often carry out. When we’re talking about the reproductive health care cuts, we’ve seen vast changes here in the RGV. We are talking about cuts to the Family Planning Program. In contrast, in the state of Texas every single year the budget for crisis pregnancy centers tends to increase. It’s called the Alternatives to Abortion Program, and there’s millions of dollars in that budget for centers that do not provide reproductive health care. The state of Texas is attempting to substitute actual reproductive health care with crisis pregnancy centers that exist in the RGV. People aren’t actually getting the reproductive health care services they need. Planned Parenthood clinics have been under constant attack here in Texas. Planned Parenthood clinics had to change their name and lose the affiliation to Planned Parenthood so they could still try and provide as much care as possible. It’s definitely a challenge and it’s changed so much over the years. 

BTC: What has been the impact of SB 8 on the Rio Grande Valley? What has been the impact on undocumented women in the Rio Grande Valley area?

Nancy: We often highlight how access to abortion care looks very different for different people throughout the state of Texas. We acknowledge the effects of SB 8 are incredibly difficult for people who are residing within the state and in other states trying to pass SB 8-like laws. We have to think about the undocumented members of immigrant communities that often struggle with access the most when we are talking about the RGV. If that wasn’t enough, we have internal immigration checkpoints 100 miles in that prevent people who are undocumented from traveling. There is the conversation around we’re just going to go to another state for care.  It is already difficult enough as it is because the majority of people who access abortion care in the state of Texas are already parents. Additionally, there are already a number of restrictions that make that process much more difficult, both emotionally and just grueling. We talk about this booklet called “The Woman’s Right to Know” that has to be read to women seeking abortion. It is filled with misinformation like: “Abortion causes breast cancer or suicide” and other things. We also talk about waiting periods which already make the traveling process harder than it has to be. So this conversation around leaving the state, for a lot of people in Texas, is just non-existent and not possible. People are basically left with no real options and subject to the care that the state provides. Here in the Valley often the conversation that we’ve been having and been hearing much more about is the medication abortion option. I always like to put a caveat to this. Mexico and the U.S. have always had this health care transaction. Whether they like it or not, they have participated in the transaction of medication abortion for the longest time. That conversation is continuing but at a much greater capacity than ever before thanks to restrictive laws like SB 8. Because our work has to look at the different intersections of reproductive health care, we have to highlight both SB 4s— there was a SB 4 that passed right before the last legislative session which imposed medication abortion restrictions. In Arizona, there also is HR 2598 called the anti-sanctuary cities law, it’s similar to SB 1070, the show me your papers law, that basically enables police officers to act as immigration agents. So we have this trifecta of militarization in The Valley, and enforcers of immigration— border patrol, police, ICE. Now we have the military acting as immigration enforcers in The Valley. It definitely makes it difficult for people to access abortion care, because sometimes the decision is not just whether I’m going to be able to pay for my abortion procedure or pay for my utility bill, but now it’s, will I get stopped by police or immigration on the way to the clinic and potentially face deportation proceedings?

BTC: What is the role of pregnancy centers in the Rio Grande Valley area? What can you say about the placement of these pregnancy centers in local communities and the roll they play spreading false information such as abortion being completely illegal in Texas since SB 8 passed?  Is there any organizing happening against the misinformation?

Nancy: I can’t begin to express how the budget [for crisis pregnancy centers] keeps growing every single year. The state of Texas is trying to substitute actual health care with CPCs. They do not offer health care. They do not even offer the spectrum of options that you could potentially decide on in regard to reproductive health care. For sure, they don’t let you assert your own autonomy in making those decisions for what’s best for you and what’s best for your family. Like I said, the majority of people who access abortion care are already parents. Sometimes that decision is between you and your families. There has been a lot of investigations and organizing into what disinformation crisis pregnancy centers actually provide. But of course, the organizing that we do within communities often highlights this complex scenario of these CPCs, which often tout that they offer all these services when they don’t. A lot of Texas allies and partners who do this work have created billboard campaigns or investigations into what goes behind CPCs. We had AVOW also doing their own set of investigations into what services are behind a CPC. Some people who also do the investigations walk out of a center with an ultrasound when they weren’t pregnant, or with ultrasounds that show they are more far along than their actual pregnancy. So there’s definitely a lot of work going into CPCs. All of this investigation is often presented during legislative sessions. 

 BTC: What are the dangers women face if anti-abortion forces succeed in rolling back access to reproductive services and overturning Roe versus Wade?

Nancy: A lot of other states have trigger laws in place that would automatically overturn abortion access in their states if Roe were to be overturned. It’s complicated for me to talk about this because we already exist in a world where all of these abortion restrictions are in place and people don’t have access to the abortion care that they need. People are either going to be forced into parenthood or will find any way they can to terminate their pregnancy. This world already exists where I work. It makes me question how far-reaching Roe actually was for people who are trying to attain abortion care. Something we continuously say is: “People who have the means, who have the income, who have the privilege and who are citizens, can go anywhere to attain abortion care.” That’s not really the issue. Although the laws are incredibly dangerous in general to people who are trying to access abortion care, this post-Roe world is already in full effect in areas like the RGV. That’s the work we’ve been doing. Embracing that Roe did not do enough, that Roe is just the floor and not the ceiling and trying to organize within our communities and trying to work toward a world where there are much more protections involved for people trying to access abortion care than ever before. 

BTC: Is there anything you haven’t mentioned yet that you want to highlight about the link between organizing around immigration justice and reproductive justice that’s going on?

Nancy: I’ll just continue highlighting how whenever we look at abortion restrictions it’s not uniform. We have to look at abortion restrictions in a way where we have to discuss how communities are affected in different ways. In the RGV and people who are undocumented are no different. So doing this work on the border and talking to people within the community it’s especially evident that sometimes people aren’t even aware of the restrictions that are in place. So a big chunk of our work is also education. A lot of people don’t have access to the resources of knowing how a session works, knowing how a bill works, knowing how to advocate against certain types of bills. Until it comes out in the news, then it’s often placed in a way where “everything is lost”, “abortion is completely illegal and there’s nothing you can do.” And so a big chunk of our work is, both in English and Spanish, digesting that information and making people aware of what is actually happening, what are the restrictions, and how they can advocate for themselves. 

BTC: What would you want the women you work with to know? 

Nancy: I would want them to know that they are loved for whatever decision that they choose to make regarding their abortion care. That they will be supported no matter what decision they choose to make. It’s so often and so common in this work that we organize for our communities and organize for other people, but we often forget that we ourselves still need that radical change and that love. I hope that the people that I organize with know that they are very much loved, and I appreciate all the strength and the fight that they give. We can only hope to sow the seeds and see what other generations do with the work that is going to continue but that oftentimes we ourselves need that radical care, so I just hope that they know that they are loved. 

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