Lessons from Rio Grande: a post-Roe mirror


With the threat to overturn Roe v. Wade looming on the horizon, Texas bill SB 8 has imposed major restrictions on accessing abortion. The bill bans all abortions after six weeks, when many women would not even know they are pregnant. Additionally, the bill imposes a bounty of at least $10,000 on anyone assisting Texans with accessing abortion after six weeks. 

But for the women of the Rio Grande Valley, the hardships posed by SB 8 are nothing new. For more than a decade, cuts to reproductive healthcare funding, the closure of abortion clinics, and the cost of abortion services have severely limited abortion access in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). The RGV is a vast region of Texas which spans four different counties and is home to more than one million people. It is also one of the country’s highest poverty and lowest insurance rates with about a third living below the poverty line and a third without health insurance. Cruel immigration policies further exacerbate the reproductive health crisis in the RGV.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to make the conditions in the RGV even more precarious. Over 90% of the population in the The Valley is Hispanic or Latino, and a significant portion are undocumented. The onslaught of the pandemic led to a surge in unemployment, disproportionately affecting the RGV and putting undocumented workers even more at risk since they could not access unemployment benefits or stimulus checks. These conditions have made it increasingly difficult for the women in the RGV to access abortion services. 

Nancy Cárdenas Peña, the state director of the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Justice spoke to the situation in the RGV, “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.”  

These ongoing attacks on abortion access have also slashed other forms of women’s medical care. In 2011, when Texas cut its budget for family planning, women lost access to cancer screenings, contraception and other preventative services. One in four abortion clinics in the RGV were forced to close.

“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,” said Nancy. 

That clinic is Whole Woman’s Health, in McAllen, Texas, now the only abortion provider in Texas south of San Antonio, which is about 250 miles away. In place of the abortion clinics that were forced to close their doors, Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) cropped up. These CPCs spread misinformation to pregnant women, suggesting that they have missed the six-week abortion cutoff when in fact they have not or that abortion is illegal entirely in Texas due to SB 8. In contrast to the ever-increasing cuts to the Family Planning Program, Nancy shared, “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.” 

Abortions in the RGV are much more costly than anywhere else in Texas, despite its status as one of the most impoverished regions. Compared to an average cost of $600 in Houston, women in the RGV are paying anywhere from $800-$1500 for this vital health service. To make matters worse, the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, prevents federal health insurance from covering abortion procedures. 

The situation in the RGV hits hardest on poor and undocumented women. According to Nancy, “We have internal immigration checkpoints 100 miles in [from the Mexico border] 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…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.

“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?’” With all of these barriers in place preventing women from accessing abortion services, undocumented women in the RGV are forced to choose between parenthood and deportation. 

Organizers on the ground, from lobbyists to advocacy groups to grassroots movements, are connecting the struggle for immigrant rights with abortion rights. Reproductive justice campaigns from the RGV area have expanded to undocumented people across the state of Texas since SB 8 was enacted. These campaigns aim to provide trainings on self-advocacy, education on access and the impact of anti-abortion legislation as well as trainings on how to organize against abortion restrictions. Women are being empowered to tell their stories and serve as leaders in the struggle for abortion rights. The expansion of funding towards CPCs has led organizers to engage in in-depth investigations and organizing efforts against the disinformation the CPCs provide. This research is often presented during legislative sessions aimed at challenging the existence of these so-called clinics. 

What the women in the RGV are facing now has the very real possibility of becoming the new normal for women across the U.S. if Roe is overturned. With full control of all parts of the government, the Democrats could, in fact, pass legislation to fully legalize abortion once and for all, but they have failed again and again to deliver on this promise. 

In a recent interview with Breaking the Chains, Nancy Cárdenas Peña explained the catastrophic implications should Roe be overturned, “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…People are either going to be forced into parenthood or will find any way they can to terminate their pregnancy…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,” Nancy continued, “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.” 

Women in the RGV are organizing for a world in which abortion is accessible and protected as a fundamental right, because it is clear that we cannot depend on the Supreme Court to uphold Roe nor to combat state by state legislation eroding abortion access. No matter where in the U.S a person lives, everyone should have full access to abortion on demand without apology!  

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