Abortion is still legal in Texas. But a leaked draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion indicating that the court’s conservative majority plans to overturn Roe v. Wade sent shock waves through the abortion rights community in El Paso and around the country.
“We saw this coming,” said Lina-Maria Murillo, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa who researches abortion access on the border. “However, that doesn’t make the kick in the gut hurt less.”
Among Texas cities, El Paso is uniquely positioned along state and international borders where abortion access and accessibility change once lines are crossed. Although Texas has a trigger law in place that would ban abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned, abortion would continue to be legal in neighboring New Mexico, which in its last legislative session passed a law that protects the right to abortion if Roe v. Wade is struck down.
Medication used to induce abortion is also legally sold over the counter in Ciudad Juárez because it can also treat ulcers.
The 1973 case Roe v. Wade was decided with a 7-2 majority, which included five Republican-nominated justices — their decision was based on a right to privacy ensured by the due process clause in the 14th amendment. The leaked opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, called the 1973 court’s decision “egregiously wrong.”
Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed Tuesday that the leaked draft was authentic, but not a final decision, and announced plans to launch an investigation into the leak. Legal observers have pointed to past instances where justices have changed their minds after writing draft decisions.
Abortion access in Texas has already shrunk to a nearly impossible timeframe for many. Senate Bill 8, which bans abortions as soon as cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo, narrowed the timeframe for those seeking abortions in Texas to five-to-six weeks. Although known as a “heartbeat bill,” embryos do not yet have a heart at that early stage in gestation.
Read our 3-part series: Abortion on the border
Part one: Legislation in Texas and criminalization in Chihuahua
Part three: Activists stay resilient
Since SB8 was passed, there has been a 14-fold increase in the distance Texans are driving to seek abortions, according to a Guttmacher Institute study. Demand for at-home abortion medication by mail skyrocketed in Texas following the passage of SB8, increasing by 1,200%.
El Paso’s Planned Parenthood has intermittently offered abortion care since the start of the pandemic, due to staffing difficulties and COVID-19 concerns; the clinic currently offers abortion referrals according to its website.
If the Supreme Court decision is made official, abortion advocates and care providers in El Paso and elsewhere will face questions of legality and may need to move toward increased secrecy and underground networks, much like they did pre-Roe, Murillo said. She suggested that, given El Paso’s stance as a blue county in a red state, county and city leaders could consider efforts to establish local sanctuary laws for reproductive health care.
But El Paso is also a disproportionately Catholic city, and the Catholic Church has resolutely opposed abortion throughout history.
Fernando Ceniceros, communications director for the El Paso Catholic Diocese, said, “the church has always been in prayer for the born and unborn and that’s where our focus lies,” in response to the news.
It’s difficult to predict what an overturned Roe v. Wade would mean for local abortion access, according to Rachel, board president of West Fund, an El Paso-area volunteer group that helps fund abortions. But restricted abortion access would likely disproportionately impact marginalized groups, such as people of color, people who lack legal immigration status and low-income people, Rachel wrote in a text message to El Paso Matters.
Members of West Fund decline to provide their last names to the media to protect their safety.
“West Fund and other abortion funds in the region, state, and country will continue to work to get folks care, no matter what, despite what the courts or people in power say,” Rachel wrote.