Mexican networks ramp up help for US women seeking abortions

Thursday, July 21, 2022
US state legislators praise abortion access in Mexico
A group of U.S. state legislators from Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and North Carolina toured Mexico and said this week they are impressed by efforts to expand abortion access south of the border.

Verónica Cruz says she's been getting frantic calls from women in the United States.

Abortion clinics have canceled their appointments, and they're scared, she says.

"As soon as the Supreme Court decision came out, they were left without service. There are many people who call us crying, very desperate," Cruz told CNN in a recent interview. "And the majority don't even speak Spanish."

Cruz is the founder of Las Libres -- Spanish for "The Free Ones" -- and she's spent years fighting for abortion rights in the Mexican state of Guanajuato and throughout the country. Now her organization is helping lead the charge in a new battle, fielding calls from a growing number of women in the United States who are turning to Mexico for help.

For decades abortion rights advocates in Mexico looked to the United States as an example of what was possible. The recent US Supreme Court decision left many of them stunned -- and determined to show solidarity and take action.

The last year has brought about a dramatic role reversal. In September 2021, Mexico's Supreme Court decriminalized abortion. And in June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that guaranteed legal access to abortion across the country.

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"It surprised me that Mexico is going forward, and the United States is going backward," Cruz says. "I never imagined that."

Cruz says she and other advocates in Mexico have been watching closely as an increasing number of US states passed abortion restrictions. And by the time the US Supreme Court decision came down, she says, they were ready to help.

"A beautiful web is being woven so that women can have different options," says Sandra Cardona, who helps run "Red Necesito Abortar" -- Spanish for "I Need to Abort Network" -- from her home in Monterrey, Mexico.

The Mexican groups' efforts for years have largely focused on helping Mexican women obtain pills for medication abortions and walking them through that process. And now they say they're seeing a notable increase in requests for that help from the United States.

The rise in calls from people who are reaching out in English, Cruz says, is a sign of how great the need is.

"The numbers are going to keep growing," says Crystal P. Lira, founder of Bloodys Red Tijuana, another group that facilitates medication abortion. "It's a snowball effect."

She traveled to the US for an abortion 10 years ago. Now she's helping Americans get the same medicine

Lira remembers how alone she felt when she crossed the US-Mexico border to visit a Planned Parenthood clinic a decade ago.

Back then, when she traveled from her home in Tijuana to San Diego to get medication for an abortion, the pills were harder to come by in Mexico, and the stigma around abortion was overwhelming.

"I went feeling very solitary, feeling like I couldn't tell anyone else, not knowing who was going to support me," she says. "I went with many, many questions in my head. It was a very confusing and solitary moment."

Lira never imagined someday she'd be helping women in the US get that same medication while doing everything she can to promote abortion access on both sides of the border and fight the very stigma she faced herself.

Now the two pills needed for medication abortion -- mifepristone and misoprostol -- are cheaper and easier to obtain in Mexico. And networks of activists in Mexico have intensified their efforts to send the pills to the United States since the US Supreme Court ruling.

The groups are also providing virtual support -- known as accompaniment -- to help walk women through the process from afar. It's important to remember, Lira says, that many women in the US aren't able to travel to Mexico due to limited financial resources or a lack of immigration documents.

"We are working to make sure the medication gets to them," she says.

Groups that spoke with CNN declined to provide specifics about how they're getting medicine to the United States, saying they didn't want to jeopardize the security of those they're working with in the US.

The National Right to Life Committee, the largest anti-abortion group in the US, has suggested states should extend criminal penalties to people who help a woman receive an illegal abortion, including "trafficking" abortion-inducing drugs and even giving instructions about self-managed abortions.

In Texas, a 2021 law already bars mailing abortion medication and threatens jail time for anyone providing the pills who's not a physician. And legal experts say it's possible lawmakers in some states will try to pass legislation to prevent women from traveling out of state to get abortions, like proposed legislation that was introduced in Missouri earlier this year.

The day Roe v. Wade was overturned, they heard from 70 women in the US

For people in the US who can cross the border and would prefer to travel to Mexico, Sandra Cardona says she and others will help them get the medication and, if needed, provide a safe place for them to take it.

Cardona and her partner have converted the second floor of their Monterrey home into a space they dub the "Abortería" -- Spanish for "the abortion shop."

Inside there are cozy rooms with couches and signs trumpeting the importance of "free and dignified abortion."

Women often arrive frightened, she says, but soon appear to be surprised by how simple the medication abortion process is.

"It generally takes a half day. They take the first pill, mifepristone, 24 hours before they come to us, and then they take the misoprostol. The process is very fast, between 3-4 hours, and that's it, they leave for their homes," Cardona says. "When they come and see how fast it was and everything, they say, 'I should have done it in my house.' Of course, there is pain, but we give them something for the pain. We are with them and we talk them through it."

Recently, a woman who was working from home showed up with her laptop and kept working as the medication worked its way through her system.

Cardona says "Red Necesito Abortar" started getting more messages asking for help in September, after Texas enacted a sweeping law barring abortions at six weeks and allowing private citizens to bring civil suits against anyone who helps a pregnant person seeking an abortion in violation of the ban.

"Many women are afraid of doing it there, because they're afraid they'll be reported," she says.

That's one of many reasons Cardona says she and her partner have opened their home.

"Before September we would receive 5-7 American women per month. After September, we received 7-10 per week. On the day of the Supreme Court decision, we received 70 messages. And things have continued like that, without slowing down," she says.

Since the US Supreme Court decision, Cardona's efforts have gotten more publicity, and she says her group has gotten an increasing number of threatening messages -- from the US, too. But she says that won't deter her.

"Let them do whatever they want. We are going to keep accompanying (these women). ... I'm not going to be afraid of something that isn't here," she says.

Abortion clinics are also preparing for more patients

Mexican advocacy groups that facilitate access to medication abortions aren't the only ones seeing a shift.

Even before Roe vs. Wade was overturned, Profem, which operates abortion clinics in several Mexico's cities, was seeing some American patients. In May, about 25% of patients seeking abortions at Profem's Tijuana clinic were from the US, Director Luisa Garcia says.

"It's only been a little bit of time, but yes, we're seeing an increase," Garcia says, and she says she's expecting the numbers to grow.

"It's something that I never would have believed, that from the United States they'd come to Mexico," she said. "Before, it was the other way around. (The US was) a country with so many freedoms. It's something I still am struggling to process."

It's already common for some Americans to travel to Mexico for other medical procedures. Traveling south of the border to visit abortion clinics could also become a more common occurrence, Garcia says.

Marie Stopes International, an NGO that provides contraception and abortion services, opened a clinic in the Mexican border city of Tijuana just a week after the US Supreme Court decision.

"That was a coincidence," says Araceli Lopez Nava Vázquez, the Latin America regional director and Mexico country director for Marie Stopes International Reproductive Choices, noting that it takes months of planning to open a new clinic.

Nava Vázquez says Marie Stopes' Mexico clinics are expecting an increase in demand from patients in the United States, but so far haven't seen an uptick. She says the organization recently has been in talks with several groups in Arizona who are working to secure abortion access and funding for travel. She's also spoken with organizations in Texas.

"What I sense is a lot of hopelessness, and it is really sad," she says. "It's like we're in the Middle Ages again."

Groups in Texas have seemed hesitant to make plans, she says, with so much uncertainty about what will happen next in their state. But she says Marie Stopes is trying to do whatever it can to help.

Officials in Mexico's capital have also said they're prepared to accommodate any visitors from the US who need abortion help.

"We are a government of inclusion and we attend to all people," Mexico City Health Secretary Dr. Oliva López Arellano told reporters in May. "They have the right to make decisions about their bodies. We have the obligation to protect their health."

Mexican groups are sharing lessons they've learned with American counterparts

At a recent protest in Tucson, Arizona, advocates from the Mexican group Marea Verde Nogales wrote a message in chalk on the ground: "If you need to abort, write to @mareaverdenogales." Next to it, they drew a heart that said "USA Mexico Women United" inside.

And recently, the number of calls to the group from Arizona have increased, member Bianca Valverde says. In addition to helping provide accompaniment for medication abortions, the group hopes to help train advocates in the United States to provide accompaniment for medication abortions using the same methods.

Despite Mexico's Supreme Court ruling last year, the legal landscape for abortion in the country remains complex. Mexico City and eight of the country's 31 states have decriminalized abortion; other states still have laws criminalizing abortion on the books.

About 80% of Mexicans identify as Catholic, and the Roman Catholic Church has organized anti-abortion protests there.

Even in states where abortion is legal, providers have encountered obstacles, Garcia says. Her organization struggled to find a location for a new clinic in Tijuana earlier this year.

"We rented in a very famous medical office building that's dedicated to medical tourism," she said. "The moment that they learned it was for abortion, they wouldn't rent to us."

But Mexican abortion rights advocates say there's an important lesson they've learned in years of fighting obstacles -- a lesson they're working now to share with their counterparts north of the border.

Even in the toughest times, they say, women can succeed by turning to each other for help.

"Now it's time," Cruz says, "for the north to learn from the south."

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