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Opinion: A transnational approach to abortion in the Borderland

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By Lina-Maria Murillo

This past July, Las Brujas del Mar (Witches of the Sea), a feminist group from Veracruz, Mexico, celebrated a major victory for abortion rights in their state.

“We thought this day was so far off that we’re in shock, in the best way possible,” they tweeted after news broke that Veracruz would become the fourth state in Mexico to legalize the procedure before 12 weeks — Oaxaca, Hidalgo, and Mexico City legalized the procedure since 2007.  

Lina-Maria Murillo

Just a few months prior, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott headed in a different direction. He signed into law one of the most restrictive and overarching policies against abortion in the country. Texas’ law set to go into effect Sept. 1 not only bans abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy — before most people know they are pregnant — but also deputizes private citizens to sue abortion providers and others who support those seeking the procedure. While this new law seems to clamp down on Texas residents’ ability to secure safe and legal abortion services, history points to transnational ramifications in outlawing a person’s right to choose.  

Historians have tried — in vain it seems — to draw greater attention to a time when abortion was a crime in the United States. We know the stories of women succumbing to unsafe backroom procedures in the years before Roe v. Wade. Recent generations have listened intently as their grandmothers describe women using hat pins, coat hangers, and all-manner of brutal tools and potions to end their pregnancies before it was legal.  

Other historians, including myself, have reminded people that since at least the 1940s people traveled across the U.S.-Mexico border to receive safe — but illegal abortions — in cities like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.

In the 1960s, with the help of various organizations, including the Society for Human Abortions in San Francisco and the Clergy Consultation Service in New York, women from all over the United States received information about reputable abortion providers in Mexico.

Many women drove hundreds of miles from as far away as the Dakotas, while others mounted so-called “abortion flights” — leaving Friday afternoon and returning on Sunday morning — to the El Paso airport and crossed the border by foot or taxi to its sister-city Ciudad Juárez for an abortion.

Sarah Weddington, the attorney who argued Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court in 1971, recalled her borderland abortion in Piedras Negras, Mexico, across the line from Eagle Pass, Texas. She was a young law student attending the University of Texas at Austin at the time and knew if she did not end her pregnancy on her own terms, she would not finish law school. 

Not all abortion procedures in Mexico went as planned in those years. Given the large financial incentives from this underground business — abortion providers in Mexico could make thousands of dollars a day providing the procedure — charlatans did jump into the fray.

Physicians in El Paso recalled treating many women with botched procedures — some barely making it to the hospital in time to save their lives. Yet, with the support of feminist organizations like SHA and CCS, countless women received safe abortions in Mexico before Roe.    

Given the increasing hostility against abortion providers and abortion-seeking people in the United States, it seems we will once again need to look to our southern neighbors for access to abortion care. People in border cities, like El Paso, where formal abortion care is now nonexistent are already traveling across the border where most farmacias (pharmacies) carry FDA-approved abortion medication misoprostol.  Still, the specter of criminalization remains high in Mexican states like Chihuahua, where, since 2013, at least 10 people have been charged with illegally terminating their pregnancies.

As feminist activists in the U.S. scramble to overturn Texas’ new assault against a person’s constitutional right to an abortion and with the Supreme Court set to deliberate on Mississippi’s abortion ban which could effectively overturn Roe, Borderland tactics are needed now. Building transnational networks with counterparts in Mexico, feminist groups like Las Brujas del Mar, can provide a transregional approach to dealing with these draconian laws that, advocates say, disproportionately affect poor people and people of color.

This history should also remind us that no matter what anti-abortion crusaders try, pregnant people will always find ways to get abortions. They will travel immense distances, cross national boundaries, even inflict tremendous harm on themselves to control their reproduction.

With all that technology has offered us since abortion became legal in the U.S. 48 years ago, denying people access to safe reproductive care should be a crime. Today, however, unlike 50 years ago, Mexico’s increasing moves to legalize abortion may provide opportunities for organizations to help those in need find access to care.

Lina-Maria Murillo is an assistant professor at the University of Iowa.

Cover photo: With abortion illegal in Chihuahua, one of the few options available to women in Juárez is a self-induced medical abortion using misoprostol, which is available in most Juárez pharmacies. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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