Abortion access in El Paso goes from limited to nonexistent
The taupe building that was formerly Hill Top Women’s Reproductive Clinic now has an empty parking lot and sprawling real estate banners indicating the space is for sale.
A notice on El Paso Planned Parenthood’s website reads, “currently due to COVID-19, we are not providing abortion services at this location.” Spokesperson Sarah Wheat said there’s no telling when, or if, they will be able to provide abortion care in El Paso again.
That means there are currently no abortion providers in El Paso.
So when Gov. Greg Abbott signed a new law in Texas which would ban abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy with no exception for rape or incest, advocates in El Paso said effects of the new measure are uncertain. That’s not because El Pasoans aren’t seeking out abortions, but because access here was already so limited.
“El Paso’s kind of the forgotten city in Texas,” said Alexis, the Helpline Manager for West Fund, a reproductive justice organization that helps people in the borderlands to fund their abortions.
“We really have to remind other folks in Texas about how limited we actually are here (for abortion care),” they said. (Alexis, who uses they/them pronouns, asked that their last name not be published due to safety concerns.)
Most of the people helped by West Fund end up traveling to Albuquerque for the procedure, Alexis said.
Miranda Aguirre, who manages the El Paso Planned Parenthood clinic, said they refer people seeking abortions to Albuquerque, Lubbock, Austin, or to Women’s Reproductive Clinic of Sunland Park.
Having consistent abortion services in El Paso has been a huge challenge for Planned Parenthood, Wheat said.
“This is absolutely by design. It’s not just by chance that we have a lot of challenges providing these services,” she said. “The state has really put enormous resources into stigmatizing, isolating and really putting as many barriers in place as they possibly could.”
El Paso attitudes on abortion
Sarah Lopez found out she was pregnant a week after graduating college in 2016. As soon as she took the pregnancy test, she knew what she wanted to do, and described getting an abortion as “the best decision I’ve ever made.”
But for the El Paso native who comes from a “very Catholic Hispanic family,” the stigma around abortion meant that it was not initially an option to tell her family.
“I would imagine that lots of folks in El Paso and on the border, and literally anybody who comes from a Catholic, Hispanic family is going to feel those feelings as well,” she said. “(As though) ‘I don’t even want to say the word abortion, let alone tell them that I’m going to have one or that I need help getting one.’”
Lopez, who lives in Austin, was able to access abortion care there without significant hurdles but still described the process as confusing and scary. Her personal experience motivated Lopez to pursue work in reproductive justice; she’s now the program coordinator for Fund Texas Choice, a statewide abortion fund.
The influence of Catholicism plays a major role in why some El Pasoans avoid conversations about reproductive health care, especially abortion, said Dominique Huerta, interim president of El Paso Young Democrats.
“We don’t really talk about those things,” she said. “(Growing up in El Paso) it was kind of like, ‘No, don’t have sex. You’re going to get in trouble if you do.’ That kind of teaches people to be better liars.”
The Catholic Church and other Christian churches have steadfastly condemned abortion, and the rhetoric of politicians around abortion is often cloaked in religious language.
When he signed the new Texas bill, Abbott declared “our creator endowed us with the right to life and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion.”
State Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, the lead sponsor of what is known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, said the measure is needed to protect life after a heartbeat is detected. Embryonic signal flutters can be detected as early as six weeks, but at that point the embryo is not yet a fetus, nor does it have a heart.
Bishop Mark Seitz of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso said he wanted El Pasoans with unwanted pregnancies to know that the church was there to support them. He also expressed hope that Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion, will be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. “We’re killing human beings,” he said.
The Supreme Court recently announced that it will hear a case that challenges Roe v. Wade during its fall 2021 term. Given the current conservative skew of the court, some say it’s likely that this challenge to federal precedents regarding abortion access could be successful. Recent Supreme Court appointments during the Trump administration mean that conservative justices have a 6-3 majority in the United States’ highest court.
State lawmakers wasted little time planning ahead in case of a possible reversal of the landmark decision. House Bill 1280, dubbed “the trigger law,” recently passed the Texas legislature. The bill would outlaw abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The semantics of abortion
Language around abortion is highly contested, and the words one chooses reveal a great deal about their attitude. Reproductive justice advocates on the border say that the conservative rhetoric around abortion perpetuates stigma and shame.
“People say that they’re pro-life, but in reality, they’re anti-choice,” said Alexis of West Fund, referring to people who oppose access to abortions. They said that referring to people who oppose abortion as pro-life is problematic, because lack of access to abortions harms the life of the person with an unwanted pregnancy.
“Abortion is incredibly common, it’s incredibly normal, and it’s also a positive thing, because at the end of the day, you are choosing your life. I think that’s one thing that anti-choicers miss,” they said.
Bishop Seitz said the opposite.
“The language of choice is really a misnomer, because if mothers felt like they were truly supported along this process they wouldn’t be choosing abortion,” he said.
The way politicians use religious language to legislate reproductive health care is a deliberate strategy, said Lina-Maria Murillo, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa who researches the history of reproductive health care on the border.
“These moral panics that are produced by conservatives are completely political. It’s just about getting people out to vote,” she said.
How abortion restrictions affect the border
The majority of Americans support the right to legal abortions, according to Pew Research Center. Although the abortion rate has been falling in the United States, research by Guttmacher Institute shows that, as of 2014, nearly one in four women had had an abortion by the age of 45. More than half of those who obtained abortions had already given birth in the past, according to the study.
Murillo said that heightened abortion restrictions disproportionately impact communities of color.
“In a city like El Paso where the majority of the people are Mexican American, these kinds of laws become harsher and more brutal for people because they’re compounded by racism and decades worth of social neglect, governmental neglect,” she said. “It’s politicians playing with the lives of the most marginalized people in their state.”
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, referred to Texas legislation as “draconian” in a statement shared following the signing of Senate Bill 8 into law.
“Texas’ abortion ban is a brazen attack against women’s freedom to make decisions about their own bodies,” she said.
Murillo said one consequence of limited abortion access in El Paso is increased demand for medication abortion in Ciudad Juárez.
“There’s a whole economy of clinics and organizations and health care workers who are creating the space where people can call in and be guided through a medication abortion,” she said. “Those medications are easily purchased in Juárez — people know this.”
The new Texas law, which would take effect in September unless successfully challenged in court, includes a provision that anyone who “aids and abets” in the provision of an abortion can be sued. It not only applies to medical providers, but also to people who pay for abortions or even give someone a ride to a place where they could obtain one.
Planned Parenthood spokesperson Wheat indicated that Texas clinics would follow the letter of the law when it comes to new abortion restrictions. But Alexis from West Fund said the organization will continue to help El Pasoans fund their abortions, even if that entails risk of a lawsuit.
“At West Fund, we’re not here to change people’s minds, we’re here to make sure that we are giving all the support — emotional, financial — to the folks who are choosing to get their abortions,” they said.
Cover photo: The former location of Hill Top Women’s Reproductive Clinic is now for sale. (René Kladzyk/El Paso Matters)