Physician Franz Theard, who runs the Women’s Reproductive Clinic of New Mexico in Santa Teresa, near El Paso. (Paul Ratje for The Washington Post)
Physician Franz Theard, who runs the Women’s Reproductive Clinic of New Mexico in Santa Teresa, near El Paso. (Paul Ratje for The Washington Post)

The New Mexico Provider Trying to Save Abortion for Texas Women

This 73-year-old physician is on a mission to make his clinic a refuge for women’s health care on the border

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Franz Theard plies his trade in the sunniest of shadow worlds. His innocuously named Women’s Reproductive Clinic of New Mexico is hidden in plain sight, down a slope in a strip mall, neighboring a Subway and a State Farm office, in a border town of a border town. It’s less than a mile from the Texas state line, amid the sprawl of El Paso, which is itself a crossing to Ciudad Juárez in old Mexico, as folks here call it, surrounded by fireworks stores and delicious tacos and the desert beyond.

Here, this 73-year-old Haitian American OB/GYN and abortion provider sits in windowless exam rooms, handing patients pills to end their pregnancies, skirting Texas law by a trick of New Mexico geography. (And, if the protesters stationed outside during all business hours are to be believed, charting his path to hell.) He is alone on the southern edge of America, at the westernmost corner of the country’s second biggest state. And if Roe v. Wade is overturned, Theard soon may be one of the only abortion providers in the western United States.

“You’re going to go to your favorite hospital and blame the cramps on — tell them you’re having a miscarriage,” Theard (pronounced thay-ARD) told 32-year-old mother of three Cynthia Mena, explaining that she’d need a shot of medication because pregnancy termination can trigger her blood type to create antibodies that could attack future pregnancies. “Just don’t tell them about the pill. I recommend that you don’t,” Theard went on. “They’ll treat you like you killed Jesus or something.” (Texas is full of antiabortion OB/GYNs who often shame their patients, Theard explained.)

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has been an unstoppable force behind Texas’s S.B. 8, a.k.a. the “Heartbeat Act,” a law imposing some of the tightest abortion restrictions in the country. Ever since it went into effect in September, Theard’s clinic has had an influx of patients from East Texas who’ve suddenly found themselves without options in their own state. Many of them, like Mena, went to clinics in big cities like Dallas, Houston, Austin or San Antonio, only to get turned away because a gestational heartbeat could be detected on an ultrasound, which usually happens around six weeks — often before most women know they’re pregnant. Providers have been incentivized to stick to the law, because it also contains provisions for people to sue anyone — from providers to Uber drivers — who “aids and abets” an illegal abortion.

Theard thought S.B. 8 would go the way of 2013’s H.B. 2, which banned abortion after 20 weeks and which Abbott (then Texas’s attorney general) fought tirelessly to keep in place, before it was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016. “We figured the same thing was going to happen. They were just rattling their sabers. I felt confident that this can’t last,” said Theard. “It doesn’t make any sense, people putting bounties on doctors. But it’s here and it looks like it’s gonna stay.”

Now he’s made it his mission to persuade the women of East Texas to come west instead of going to Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas or Arkansas — all states with mandatory 24- to 72-hour waiting periods, and where getting an appointment may take two to three weeks because of the sudden increased demand from Texas. And in some of those states, the laws are getting increasingly more strict. “Thank God we’re in New Mexico,” which has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, says Theard. That demand will only increase if Roe v. Wade is overturned and Texas bans abortion outright, as is expected.

Just because Texas is making it almost impossible to get an abortion doesn’t mean demand is down. Studies released in March showed that the law didn’t stop Texas women from getting abortions — they just went out of state. Last year, Theard says, his clinic treated 1,845 abortion patients, in the middle of the pandemic. And that’s before S.B. 8 started driving patients his way. In April he did 260 abortions, up 85 from the same month last year; half were from East Texas. Theard estimates that 95 percent of all of his patients are Hispanic.

Theard opened his office on weekends to make it easier for patients to come from East Texas and got his staff on board with the cause. “I don’t need the money, to be honest with you,” he told me, when I visited his clinic on a Saturday in late March. Fliers supporting Beto O’Rourke in his governor’s race against Abbott were displayed around the waiting room. “People ask me, 'What’s your goal? What do you want to do? I am so left-wing, liberal Democrat. I would like for Santa Teresa, New Mexico, to be almost like continuing getting abortion pills in El Paso — to be known as the exception to the S.B. 8 rule in Texas. Anybody who gets pregnant, you don’t really have to leave the state of Texas to get your pill.” (Technically, you do have to leave Texas.)

To that end, he’s offering incentives, like rolling the tax New Mexico charges for the procedure into a flat $700 fee, or the free abortions he offered on International Women’s Day in March and on Armed Forces Day in May. For those traveling long distances, he offers $100 to $150 back as a fuel rebate, on a discretionary basis and if the journey seems like a financial hardship. (“If you tell me you flew in your private jet, I don’t give you a refund,” he says.)

Mena, who works in accounts receivable for a tire company, had her third child just a year ago and recently found out that her husband cheated on her. She doesn’t want to add another child to the mix. And when a clinic in Dallas turned her down, she found Theard on Google and decided it was worth driving 10 hours from Irving, Tex., to see him. All told, she’ll have spent more than $1,400: $700 for the procedure, and the rest for gas, two days of a rental car and one night in a hotel. She’s a fan of Theard’s — but not of the new law. “I was very disappointed and angry, and it’s not fair,” she said. “Because I had to go all the way to another state so I can get a service that I need.”

Inside Theard’s waiting room on that March Saturday, 14 patients sat in silence, accompanied by their sisters, mothers or female friends, staring at their phones or at the soundless Scott Bakula procedural playing on TV. Because the staff recognizes how uncomfortable and taboo this all is, they call patients into their appointments with numbers, not by name. “We have patients that come, like, with all these insecurities, nervous,” says medical assistant Rocio Negrete. “They’re afraid to say the ‘abortion’ word. When they call, they’re like, ‘I have a situation. I don’t know how to say it.’ ”

Since the new law, that fear has gotten worse. “We do have some patients that come in like, ‘No one’s gonna arrest me, right? No one’s gonna be outside waiting for me?’ ” says medical assistant Elizabeth Hernandez. They also worry that they’re going to get arrested on their way back to Texas, or when they go to the pharmacy for prescriptions for antibiotics and pain medication.

Theard has wire-rimmed glasses, a warm smile surrounded by a salt-and-pepper goatee, and a penchant for dark humor that seems to put his patients immediately at ease. He asks them where they’re from, what they do, and subtly peppers in questions about their partners — and parents, if they’re younger — to make sure no one is forcing them to have this procedure. He often urges patients to use birth control or a different method if theirs failed them. (His favorite sign-off: “Don’t be a repeat customer. We love you, but don’t come back.”)

He immigrated to Washington, D.C., from Haiti in 1964, when he was 15, the biracial son of a German mother (a secretary) and Haitian father (government statistician). He was admitted to Catholic University that summer without a high school diploma and with minimal ability to speak English. (He spoke only French and German but later picked up English from watching horror films and American football.) Medical school at George Washington University allowed him to defer fighting in the Vietnam War.

He figured out early on that he wanted to be an OB/GYN specializing in high-risk pregnancies. “People don’t die, more or less,” he explains about his preference. “Usually it’s a happy experience, and I’ve always enjoyed working with women.”

Abortions, which Theard started doing in 1973 during his residency at what is now MedStar Washington Hospital Center in D.C., were a natural extension. Roe v. Wade had just been decided by the Supreme Court that January, and all of Theard’s medical idols not only had their own abortion practices but were teaching him how to perform the procedure.

He had been a young man when abortion wasn’t legal and had seen his friends taking their girlfriends up to New York to get abortions from Haitian doctors who were “charging them a lot of money because they were taking a big risk,” he says. “But once Roe vs. Wade became the law, I mean, I’ve never seen clinics so busy. Just like when you discovered the birth control pill. It was a big demand.”

He continued doing abortions on a military base in Frankfurt, Germany, after the Army held him to his deferred draft. A fellowship at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center brought him to El Paso. He left the Army to open his OB/GYN practice downtown in 1983, and an abortion clinic followed the next year. The New Mexico clinic came in 2010, both because Theard anticipated the overturn of Roe and because he couldn’t stand the paperwork and “constant harassment” connected with performing abortions in Texas; he closed the El Paso clinic last year. In Texas, he would get fined constantly for technicalities, deal with surprise inspections and have to pay for patient literature (“with stupid stuff like ‘abortion causes breast cancer’ ”) that the state demanded he pass out.

Following a nasty bout of covid-19 late last year, he retired from doing surgical abortions, which means the closest place to get one is four hours north in Albuquerque. He’s too old, he says, but a lot of the decision is emotional. “I mean, imagine crushing something and taking it out. It’s not pleasant,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking to a certain extent. Honestly, I didn’t like to do it. I hate to admit it to myself. It’s not just because I’m getting old. I just didn’t want to deal with it. It was hard.” He did it for 34 years.

Still, he continues to do medical abortions. “It feels satisfying to be able to help people who are desperate — and they are desperate — to get something done,” he says. “And I can’t understand why the other OB/GYNs don’t feel the same way. It’s part of what we do. I think abortion is woman’s care.”

As the last patient filed out on Saturday afternoon, Theard was getting a rundown from his nursing staff about the man they’d had to call the police on that morning. “I’ve seen that scenario before,” Theard said. “We haven’t had one of those guys in a while.”

For once, Theard wasn’t the target of anyone’s rage. An agitated young man in a tracksuit had stormed into the women-only waiting area at least three times demanding to see his wife, who was in the treatment rooms. She had come out to placate him and returned to the back, only to have him storm in again. Soon, they were outside, locked in a screaming match.

“He was angry, blamed her for having an affair,” said Theard, who had managed to give her a sonogram and then refunded all her money. The last time they had called the police, a man and his wife were both hauled to jail, and then they sued Theard for wrongful arrest, a case that was dismissed.

Outside the clinic, five protesters handed out brochures reading “Pray for Unborn Babies.” A parked van was offering free ultrasounds — a technique for persuading the undecided. As I got out of my car, I was peppered with questions about what Jesus would think of what I was doing, until a distinguished and wiry older gentleman named Juan Carlos, who serves as security, ushered me inside.

“I know them all,” Theard says of the protesters, some of whom trade hellos with him. He’s fine with them asking to talk to any woman who seems undecided. “I don’t have any problems with that,” he says. “I mean, if a patient can be swayed that way, then she didn’t want to have the abortion.”

Once or twice a month, one man will place dozens of signs all the way down the street. “The signs are, like, really, really ugly. There’s one, ‘This is what’s for lunch: shredded baby,’ ” says Hernandez. Or they’ll compare the clinic to Auschwitz or condemn Theard by name. The man has hung baby dolls in the trees and left doll parts and baby shoes at the clinic’s door.

The clinic is in regular contact with the FBI. It’s ostensibly for the staff’s protection; Theard believes they are simultaneously being surveilled. He installed security cameras on the FBI’s guidance. “I think it helps, and the girls like it because if somebody gets irate, there’s a camera in the waiting area and they know they really can be documented,” he says.

He doesn’t wear a bulletproof vest, and never has, even though clinics were bombed in the 1980s, and doctors were shot and killed in the mid-’90s and late 2000s. Sometimes people would come into the clinic to cast a curse; staff once caught someone with white powder trying to perform some kind of ritual. In the ’80s, members of a group called Operation Rescue would block the entrance to Theard’s clinic in downtown El Paso, pulling women as they tried to enter, telling Theard they knew where he lived.

And they did know where he lived. They’d come to his house and march around his cul-de-sac for hours on end, terrifying his first wife, and daughter and son, who were 7 and 8 at the time. “It was not a pleasant time, so to speak,” he says. “But my two kids who bore the brunt of the stress are, thank God, liberal Democrats like me.” The last time it happened was three years ago: Someone chalked his driveway with antiabortion messages like “baby killer.”

In a way, he respects their stamina. “Roe was a liberation for my generation, but then we got lazy. We weren’t forceful enough,” he says. While there have been street demonstrations since the leaked Supreme Court draft decision, Theard says that since the early ’90s, he has never seen an abortion rights person (“not even a crazy one”) outside his clinic to counter the antiabortion demonstrators. “A lot of blah-blah, but no on-the-ground support. They did not walk the walk. It’s just like everybody’s so scared.”

He worries that he’s part of a dying breed. Everyone he knows who owns an abortion clinic in Texas is 70 or older. “We’re all baby boomers,” he says. “It’s important, but I can’t find a young doctor who wants to do it.” He worries about what will happen when he’s gone and hopes someone who can do surgical abortions will move to the area. “I don’t have a plan B,” he says. “I’m recruiting.”

Jada Yuan is a Washington Post staff writer.

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