The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before Roe v. Wade, U.S. residents sought safer abortions in Mexico

Transnational networks have long helped pregnant people navigate treatment options.

Abortion rights advocates protest Texas’s new abortion law outside the Texas Capitol in Austin on Sept. 1. (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)
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Texas just became the first state in the nation to deny a pregnant person their constitutional right to an abortion. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a draconian abortion bill into law last May. Without a single court in the country halting it, the near-total abortion ban took effect Sept. 1 — and the Supreme Court allowed it. This latest restriction not only criminalizes people seeking abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, before most people even know they are pregnant, but it also deputizes private citizens to sue abortion providers and others supporting those receiving the procedure.

Of course, this news has serious and broad implications. But it’s no accident that Texas is leading the effort to end legal abortion. Texas has long been on the front lines of this debate. Roe v. Wade originated in the state after Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe), with help from attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, sued then-District Attorney Henry Wade in 1969. And, in the years before the landmark Supreme Court decision, the Lone Star state became a gateway for U.S. residents seeking safe abortions in Mexico. This history reminds us that neither laws nor borders can stop people from seeking the abortion care they need.

Historians have established how abortion in the United States went from an unrestricted, frequently self-administered procedure, to one criminalized by the state. During the 1860s, physicians, in an effort to streamline their profession and wrest power from midwives and women themselves, led the charge to criminalize abortion. Scholars also suggest that falling birthrates among White women spurred the movement to end abortion. By the end of the century, there was an antiabortion law in every U.S. state.

And yet abortion never went away. It merely went underground. Backroom abortion providers existed in the shadows and for decades often operated with the tacit understanding of local doctors and law enforcement, both of whom had not yet figured out how to prosecute people for procuring or providing abortion. These were the days before sonograms and pharmacy-bought pregnancy tests; abortion regulations abided by the quickening doctrine, when women themselves established pregnancy after feeling the fetus move.

In the years after World War II, public frenzy developed over the proliferation of “abortion mills.” Across the country, well-known and at times well-respected abortion providers were raided and clandestine clinics closed. These aggressive tactics emerged during a period when, as one historian put it, there was “an assault on female independence” and an embrace of “traditional motherhood” as men returned from war looking for work and marriage.

While some women enlisted all-manner of grotesque tools or crude potions to end their pregnancies, others began traveling to Mexico for abortion services. Although the Catholic Church held some sway over the Mexican government’s position on birth control, there were fissures as the Mexican government sought to distance itself from the church in the early years of the 20th century. At the same time, the border region provided cover for such illicit activities as gambling, prostitution and alcohol consumption during Prohibition.

And so, by the 1940s, abortion providers began appearing along Mexico’s northern border in cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, largely to serve U.S. residents in search of abortion care. They weren’t legal, but police, judges and attorneys in Mexico took kickbacks and turned a blind eye to the emerging business.

By the 1960s, with assistance from various organizations, including the Society for Human Abortions (SHA) in San Francisco and the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS) headquartered in New York, women from all over the United States received information about reliable abortion providers in Mexico. Some women drove hundreds of miles, while others took “abortion flights” — leaving Friday afternoon and returning Sunday morning — to the El Paso airport and crossed the border by foot or taxi to El Paso’s sister city Ciudad Juárez for the procedure.

People from all walks of life contacted SHA and CCS for guidance on finding reputable abortion providers in Mexico. One father pleaded with Patricia Maginnis, the feminist co-founder of SHA, to help him find an abortion practitioner for his young daughter who had become pregnant after a sexual assault. A mother wrote a letter to the organization asking for help when she could not physically or financially bear to have a fifth child. SHA received countless letters from college-age women seeking to end unplanned pregnancies because they wanted to complete their education on their own terms.

While it is difficult to know the class status and racial demographics of those seeking abortion information via SHA and CCS referrals — it was an illicit service after all — from missives directed to SHA, we can glean that people were able to scrape together the $250-$300 needed for the procedure and the additional $100 for transportation and lodging. It was a significant sum of money ($300 in 1965 would be approximately $2,500 in today’s dollars.) Still, it was minimal compared to the then-thousands of dollars women might spend trying to receive authorization from doctors and psychiatrists for abortions classified as legal in the United States.

As with most health care in this country, abortion provision before and after Roe has always been precarious for the poor. And illegality combined with financial desperation created dangerous conditions for many women. Shady clinics could be deadly for many seeking abortions in Mexico. Physicians at El Paso’s general hospital described caring for patients with bungled procedures; it is unknown exactly how many women never made it to the hospital in time. During these same years, activists, doctors and attorneys fought to overturn state laws that prohibited abortion in the United States, sometimes offering racist depictions of “butchery in Mexico” as justification for liberalization in places such as California.

And yet organizations such as SHA and CCS, in conjunction with trustworthy providers — some doctors notified Maginnis when frauds were on the loose — helped countless women in the United States and Mexico obtain safe abortions from trained Mexican physicians before Roe. But in 1969, that became more difficult. Mexican law enforcement, along with the FBI, launched a full-scale attack against abortion providers in northern Mexico. These raids forced abortion providers deeper into the country. As late as 1971, the SHA abortion list indicated provider addresses as far south as Mazatlán and Mexico City.

By the time Roe became law of the land in the United States in 1973, Mexico was experiencing its own counterrevolution as international population control advocates joined forces with Mexican liberals extolling the virtues of contraception. Abortion provision was left off the table. Mexican women soon began crossing the border to cities like El Paso, obtaining legal abortion care in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Now it seems that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe with its refusal to act against the Texas law and with its decision to deliberate over Mississippi’s abortion ban. And so, activists and supporters must look to history and cross-border strategies for moving forward. Building transnational networks with counterparts in Mexico, feminist groups such as Las Brujas del Mar (Witches of the Sea), who recently won a major victory in Veracruz, making it the fourth state in Mexico to legalize abortion, or feminist advocacy groups demanding legalization of abortion in Chihuahua, can provide a regional approach to dealing with these draconian laws. Such laws disproportionately affect poor people and people of color on both sides of the border, and such an approach might be more practical for some people than traveling to an American state where abortion remains legal.

No matter what antiabortion crusaders try, pregnant people will always find ways to have abortions — and networks that go beyond borders have long helped them navigate treatment options. Communities in border cities such as El Paso, where abortion care is currently nonexistent, are already crossing the border south, where most pharmacies carry FDA-approved abortion medication. Even still, the threat of criminalization remains high in Mexican states such as Chihuahua, where, since 2013, at least 10 people have been charged with illegally terminating their pregnancies.

Inhumane laws in both countries must be met with transnational solidarity. Activists have done it before — and can do it again.

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