“The Message They’ve Received Is That You Don’t Deserve to Be Cared For”: Life on the Abortion Borderland

“The Message They’ve Received Is That You Don’t Deserve to Be Cared For”: Life on the Abortion Borderland

“The Message They’ve Received Is That You Don’t Deserve to Be Cared For”: Life on the Abortion Borderland

Patients seeking abortions are flooding across state lines—while anti-abortion activists try to shut clinics down.

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One day each week, the Rev. Erika Ferguson puts on leggings and a sweatshirt, pulls her hair back under a baseball cap, and heads to a North Texas airport to meet a group of people who need abortions. She shepherds the strangers through security and onto a short flight to Albuquerque, N.M. There, the group spends the day at an abortion clinic, and later they watch rom-coms in an office packed with cots, tea, and homemade cookies. The women Ferguson has accompanied represent a cross section of Texans—Black, Latina, Asian, and white. There have been rape victims and teenagers. There have been moms with teenage children at home. “I’ve taken women from all walks of life, from all ages,” Ferguson told me.

Ferguson greets the group by explaining why she is there. She has had two abortions, one at 14 and one at 18. More than 30 years later, the warmth she felt from the workers at the clinic who cared for her animates her decision to help these travelers. She calls the airlifts, which are coordinated by the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (NM RCRC), the “Tubman Travel Project.” The journeys made by people fleeing abortion bans remind her of those taken by enslaved people fleeing to free states.

Ferguson is 52, with a bright smile and a tendency to speak with a minister’s emphatic tone even when she is not in the pulpit. But she does not speak directly of God to the women she has met. “The first thing I say to them that gives them an inkling of the fact that I am even a minister is: ‘I know what you’re feeling—I’ve been there, and I promise you, you are going to be safe and cared for,’” Ferguson says. “My spirituality shows up by my care.”

It’s a long day for the travelers. Once in Albuquerque, they are ferried from the airport to the clinic by volunteers and then back to the NM RCRC office after their appointments. It is not until they get ready to leave the state that Ferguson makes explicit the risk she is taking. Texas is the epicenter of strategies to punish people who help others get abortions. As a Black woman, Ferguson told me, the risk of criminalization is “the air I breathe,” and it isn’t confined to these trips. But she worries about the travelers. So Ferguson tells the group that if she is arrested when they land in Texas, they must walk away as if they had never met her.

“Before we get on the flight,” Ferguson says, “I tell them, ‘This is where we say goodbye. You’ve done what you were here to do.’”

A sprawling landscape of small towns, piñon trees, and creosote bushes separates New Mexico—one of the states that is most protective of abortion rights—from a state that is one of the most restrictive. Texas is among at least a dozen states that banned abortion at all stages of pregnancy after the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to legal abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last June. Its population is more than 14 times that of New Mexico. In 2020, providers in Texas performed over 58,000 abortions. In 2021, in the months after Texas banned abortion at around six weeks, the number recorded there dropped by half. More than a quarter of Texas patients who left the state to obtain an abortion traveled to New Mexico, where providers had performed just 5,880 abortions in 2020. Since the repeal of Roe, providers in New Mexico have performed about 1,400 abortions each month.

To meet this surge in demand, some of the clinics in Southern states that have now banned abortion have followed their patients to New Mexico. Dr. Alan Braid’s Alamo Women’s Clinic closed its offices in San Antonio and Tulsa and opened clinics in Albuquerque and in Carbondale, Ill. Mississippi’s sole remaining abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the plaintiff in Dobbs—moved to Las Cruces.

More clinics are coming. A group led by women of color is raising money to open a clinic in Albuquerque called Valley Abortion Group that would operate under a midwifery model and be owned by the employees. The nonprofit Just the Pill, which ships abortion medication to states where it is legal, plans to bring virtual and mobile clinic services to the state.

New Mexico officials have embraced the state’s role as a haven for abortion care too. Just days after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order forbidding any state agency from assisting in abortion-related investigations by other states. In August, she signed an extraordinary measure allocating $10 million in state funds to build a new clinic near the Mexican border.

But despite New Mexico’s efforts, the obstacles to people seeking an out-of-state abortion there abound. Undocumented people in the Rio Grande Valley often don’t risk leaving the southern wedge of Texas because of checkpoints set up by the Border Patrol. An untold number of people who are too young, poor, or busy to travel have continued with unwanted pregnancies. In Austin, a counselor I spoke with found herself having to inform a 19-year-old who was about to have an abortion that Dobbs was putting an immediate halt to all abortions in Texas. “Her response was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll have this baby,’” the counselor recalled. “From what I understood, that was her only option at that point.”

The teenager was not alone. In the six months after Dobbs, the number of abortions performed by clinicians nationwide dropped by more than 32,000 below the pre-ruling monthly average. But some activists involved in the distribution of abortion medication say that many people are likely having abortions that are not being recorded. They are buying the same pills they would get at a clinic through overseas pharmacies or telehealth providers like Aid Access or from peer-to-peer networks. These methods can carry legal risks. At least 61 people have been criminally investigated or arrested for self-managing an abortion or helping someone else do so from 2000 to 2020, according to Laura Huss of If/When/How. But the informal market for abortion drugs is booming.

“We estimate that there were at least 40,000 doses of mife/miso [the abbreviation for the two-drug regimen of mifepristone and misoprostol] distributed through alternate networks in the six months post-Dobbs, and that is a very conservative estimate,” Elisa Wells, a cofounder of Plan C, wrote to me. “There is a robust pipeline of product coming into the US, and we know people are accessing and using it.”

Abortion seekers and abortion drugs are moving freely—the drugs into red states, the patients into blue states. But the extent to which New Mexico, or any other blue state, can remain an abortion refuge depends on whether federal courts allow anti-abortion strategies to cross borders freely too. In the conservative high plains of southeastern New Mexico, Texas anti-abortion activist Mark Lee Dickson has persuaded a bloc of towns and counties to pass anti-abortion ordinances. He hopes the lawsuits generated by these ordinances will lead the Supreme Court to ban abortion even in states that are trying to protect it.

It is across this divide that Ferguson travels each week, with the understanding that opponents of abortion are reshaping the ground she flies over in real time. Ultimately, if they are going to stop abortion, they must find a way to stop people like her.

After Dobbs enabled Texas to ban abortion, Amy Hagstrom Miller, the founder and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, closed her four abortion clinics in the state and got ready to follow her patients to New Mexico. Under Texas’s six-week ban, Whole Woman’s Health had begun offering telemedicine abortions in New Mexico. They noticed that their Texas patients, who had to be in New Mexico for their telehealth appointments, often drove just across the state line. So Hagstrom Miller started looking at buildings nearby. She found one in Hobbs, a city of 40,000 that had grown around oil-and-gas production facilities. When the Dallas Morning News published an interview with Hagstrom Miller in which she talked about her plans, Mark Lee Dickson’s ears perked up.

Operating clinics in Texas, the state that has become a laboratory for extreme strategies to stop abortion, Hagstrom Miller became a seasoned fighter. In 2013, after an 11-hour filibuster by Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2, an omnibus abortion law that imposed regulations on clinics that were so onerous that half the state’s clinics were ultimately forced to close. Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell successfully defended HB 2 before the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2016, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court, then still majority pro-choice, struck down the law, ruling that it imposed an undue burden on abortion patients. Mitchell, now in private practice, went on to craft Senate Bill 8, the six-week abortion ban that dodged a court review of its constitutionality by relying on private citizens to enforce it. Dickson was the strategy’s ambassador. In the years leading up to the passage of SB 8, he crisscrossed Texas in his white pickup truck, persuading cities to pass similar bans. Dickson later made inroads outside Texas, getting ordinances passed in Nebraska, Ohio, Louisiana, and Iowa. Three months after one of Dickson’s ordinances forced a Planned Parenthood clinic in Lubbock to halt abortions, the Supreme Court, with its Trump-appointed conservative majority, let SB 8 stand. Texas banned most abortions nine months before Roe fell.

Last summer, when Dickson learned that Hagstrom Miller was moving to New Mexico, he reached out to Mitchell. As seismic as the Dobbs decision was, it didn’t affect states that have protected abortion rights. Could local ordinances? Mitchell knew the Texas ordinances would run afoul of New Mexico law. But he and Dickson thought they had a potential end run in the 1873 Comstock Act, a federal law that banned the mailing of abortion drugs and devices. Named for anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, the act was once used to arrest thousands of people for “immoral” activities like circulating pornographic drawings or information about contraception. Though a series of court decisions in the 1930s put an end to its enforcement, the Comstock Act has never been repealed in full; if it is revived, it could amount to a total nationwide abortion ban. Under a literal reading of the law, providers wouldn’t be able to send or receive any abortion-related drugs or paraphernalia. Unless they could get their supplies without using the mail, they’d have to stop performing abortions. Numerous legal experts have objected that reviving an anti-vice law that hasn’t been enforced in almost a century is ludicrous. But Mitchell thinks the Supreme Court might disagree.

As they had in Texas, Mitchell and Dickson started with small towns. Dickson traveled through southeastern New Mexico, meeting with supportive pastors and city leaders. Rather than ban abortion outright, his ordinances require entities within the city or county to comply with a literal reading of Comstock. Mitchell and Dickson weren’t the only ones promoting the Victorian-era law. Comstock rocketed out of the history books and into the headlines last November after anti-abortion groups brought a lawsuit in Texas challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s 23-year-old approval of mifepristone. In April, the Supreme Court stayed lower-court rulings that would have restricted access to the drug. But the justices did not weigh in on the lawsuit’s claim that the Comstock Act bans the mailing of all abortion drugs and devices. Mitchell and Dickson hope to force them to do so.

Hagstrom Miller wasn’t afraid of the New Mexico ordinances: She had a lot of practice defending her clinics in court, suing the State of Texas 11 times. What did scare her was Dickson and the atmosphere his allies were whipping up in small towns in eastern New Mexico. Monitoring groups alerted her to online posts in which anti-abortion activists were talking about “surveillance and following people and profiling people and stopping people at the border to check why they were crossing the border,” Hagstrom Miller said. “There was a lot of chatter with the anti-abortion folks that was really pretty scary.” Most of Hagstrom Miller’s staff and patients are people of color. The staff said they wouldn’t feel safe in a small town where people were talking about surveilling abortion seekers. Pro-choice groups within New Mexico started encouraging her to back away from the region in favor of areas where she would have more support.

On the ground in Clovis, N.M., meanwhile, Dickson and his local supporters were making their presence felt. They packed a City Commission meeting in October, some sitting cross-legged on the floor. Wearing his signature backwards black baseball cap and a blazer, Dickson had his supporters stand and then announced that he’d asked them not to give the commissioners “heck” as long as they moved the ordinance forward.

“We’re in a little bit of a conundrum if that doesn’t happen today,” Dickson said. “Don’t cause the people behind me and to the side of me to get irritated.”

Two opponents of the ordinance, Jenn Williamson and Laura Wight, sat next to each other at the meeting. “There was a lot of yelling and Bible quotes, and we just felt, like, wholly outnumbered,” Williamson recalls.

The city commissioners voted unanimously to advance the ordinance. Williamson and Wight, who had never met before, bonded over their shock. Their facial expressions marked them as allies, and a few other pro-choice residents approached them. After that meeting, Williamson joined the group that Wight had cofounded, Eastern New Mexico Rising, which would organize against the anti-abortion ordinances, circulating petitions to repeal them by popular vote. Later, Wight would hear from people who said they opposed the ordinances but hadn’t felt safe attending the meetings.

Three weeks later, the Clovis city commissioners were becoming alarmed about the near-certainty that passing the anti-abortion ordinance would get them sued. At that November 3 meeting, Jonathan Mitchell, appearing by video stream, gave them an out: “The simple fact that you are considering the ordinance,” he told the commissioners, “will deter abortion clinics.” In other words, a law did not need to be enforced—or even passed—for people to comply with it. On that night, the fire marshal escorted the pro-choice women to their cars for safety.

The deterrent effect has been Mitchell’s most dependable weapon. When SB 8 passed, many observers assumed that the Texas court system would be inundated with lawsuits from anti-abortion activists attempting to collect bounties from anyone they suspected of “aiding and abetting” an abortion. That never happened, despite the initial bluster. There was no need for anyone to enforce the ban because providers complied with it—with the notable exception of Dr. Alan Braid, who wrote a Washington Post op-ed admitting that he had violated the ban. In December, a judge in San Antonio threw out the only lawsuit against Braid that had made it through the courts.

Even groups outside the state were backing down in the face of SB 8. The National Abortion Federation threatened to withdraw funding from any clinics that violated the ban, Jezebel reported. After Dobbs, the deterrent effect cut off the biggest source of support for traveling Texans: abortion funds.

In the wake of SB 8, Texas abortion funds were already facing scrutiny and intimidation from some of the country’s most powerful right-wing groups. In February 2022, Mitchell and two leading conservative law firms went after abortion funds using a state provision that allows parties to take a deposition before filing a lawsuit. One chilly Saturday morning, Neesha Davé, now the executive director of the Lilith Fund, awoke to find a process server standing on her doorstep, who notified her that she would be deposed concerning her group and its donors.

“It was pretty shocking,” Davé says. “Of course, I believe that the intention of this is to intimidate and to harass.” A court later denied Mitchell’s demand to depose Davé; he has since appealed. He’s served similar petitions to other Texas activists and providers.

After Dobbs, the threats became louder. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton vowed to penalize anyone who violated the state’s pre-Roe abortion ban, which imposes a sentence of up to five years in jail on anyone who “furnishes the means” for an abortion. Most of the abortion funds in the state decided that the safest course of action was to stop funding abortions and stop helping people to leave the state. “The threat of criminalization because of the pre-Roe statute and the threat of civil action against us was much higher than we anticipated,” says Zaena Zamora, the executive director of Frontera Fund. “It was heartbreaking to be forced into that position.”

The abortion funds did their best to put the post-Dobbs influx of donations to use, sometimes paying for ultrasounds or IUDs. Unable to help people at home, Fund Texas Choice booked travel and lodging for patients in the Midwest. Then in February, Robert Pitman, a federal judge in Texas, ruled that none of the three Texas anti-abortion laws prevent groups from funding abortions that happen outside of the state. The funds cautiously resumed their work.

Meanwhile, the next major threat to abortion is coming not from Texas but from New Mexico.

After the cities of Hobbs and Clovis and the counties of Roosevelt and Lea passed Dickson’s Comstock-based ordinances, New Mexico officials fought back. In March, Governor Lujan Grisham signed a law that prohibits cities and counties from imposing ordinances that conflict with state abortion protections. New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez sued the two cities and counties in the state’s Supreme Court. “This is not Texas,” Torrez said in a press release. “Our State Constitution does not allow cities, counties or private citizens to restrict women’s reproductive rights.”

New Mexico’s Supreme Court halted enforcement of the ordinances in response. In April, Mitchell filed a new lawsuit on behalf of Eunice, a city in Lea County. If Mitchell and Dickson win, these cases will make their way to the US Supreme Court and entice it to revive the Comstock Act. In the meantime, the deterrent effect has prevailed again. Whole Woman’s Health abandoned plans to move to the border, instead opening a clinic five hours northwest, in Albuquerque.

In New Mexico’s largest city, rimmed by the Sandia Mountains and crisscrossed by the Rio Grande, a century-old office building has been converted into a post-abortion field hospital. Founded in 1978 by “volunteer church ladies,” as executive director Joan Lamunyon Sanford fondly calls them, the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice occupies a warren of offices in the downtown Albuquerque building. One room is filled with cots and homemade heating packs for Texas travelers who are resting after visiting a clinic. The freezer is stocked with ravioli. There are art supplies and a rack of movies—Thelma & Louise, Mean Girls. Volunteers have written notes to the travelers and decorated them with pink gems.

“I hope your travels haven’t been too stressful,” reads one. “Please know that caring people all across the country support you and whatever decisions you make for your body, your mind, and your life.”

On the days when the travelers arrive from Texas with Ferguson, there are massage therapists and doulas on hand. “The message they’ve received in Texas is that you don’t deserve to be cared for,” Lamunyon Sanford says. “Our healing justice practitioners contradict that and say, ‘You are worthy of compassionate, holistic care.’”

When I visited in January, six months after the Dobbs decision, the organization was undergoing a massive expansion to meet the surge in demand from Texas. In 2020, NM RCRC provided financial support to 216 abortion seekers. Last year, it handled five times that amount, not including the airlifts from Texas. On the sunny day when I visited, program manager Brittany Defeo was fielding the 47 voicemails that were waiting for her when the office reopened after a two-week holiday break.

Lamunyon Sanford used to run the organization out of her den. Now she’s hiring new staff, buying ergonomic chairs and desks with built-in whiteboards. A room across the hall is getting a fresh coat of paint. Since Dobbs, funding for all of this has been easier to come by. “I’m very grateful,” Lamunyon Sanford says of the money. “I’m disappointed that it came too late.”

Lamunyon Sanford wishes everyone who needs it could have the kind of abortion that she had when she was 21. Her mother, a nurse who used to volunteer one night a week at Planned Parenthood, guessed that her daughter was pregnant. Lamunyon Sanford’s parents supported her decision to have an abortion, and their insurance paid for it. The doctor asked about Lamunyon Sanford’s faith, and when she said she was raised Methodist, he told her, “I want you to know, the Methodist Church supports your decision.” Later, a woman who’d been invited to speak at her church’s women’s group introduced Lamunyon Sanford to a network of people for whom supporting reproductive rights was part of their faith. Over time, Lamunyon Sanford and her church moved in opposite directions. She divorced her husband, met a woman, and fell in love. In the intervening years, the United Methodist Church has defrocked pastors who officiated at same-sex weddings and has affirmed “the sanctity of unborn human life.” Lamunyon Sanford doesn’t attend church anymore. “Maybe the work is my church,” she says.

It’s easy to feel that abortion is safe here, deep inside of New Mexico, beyond the reach of Texas politicians and strategists. But soon after I spoke with Ferguson, Jonathan Mitchell launched a new legal experiment. In March, he and the Thomas More Society, a conservative Christian law firm, filed a lawsuit accusing three Texas women of murder under the state’s wrongful death law because they helped a friend get abortion pills. Mitchell is representing Marcus Silva, the woman’s ex-husband, who is demanding that her friends pay him more than $1 million each. Messages cited in the lawsuit show that the woman was going through a divorce and was worried Silva would use the pregnancy against her.

The lawsuit includes a photo of the three friends in their Halloween costumes and accuses them of dressing as characters from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale in order to celebrate “the murder” of their friend’s embryo. The Thomas More Society has been fundraising off the case, advertising plans to go after the New York–based National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice because it says one of the defendants worked there.

Ferguson was not fazed. “It just underscores the real threat that this work is for my personal living,” she wrote to me shortly after the lawsuit was filed. “But it does not and will not deter me from the work in any way.”

If there’s a weakness in Mitchell’s plan, Ferguson embodies it. She has refused to succumb to the chilling effect on which his strategy relies. The anti-abortion movement has yet to come up with a ban that can’t be circumvented by a plane trip or a road trip, or by someone handing a friend five white tablets that fit into the palm of their hand. The fatal flaw in the anti-abortion strategy is that plenty of people are still doing this work despite the risks.

Each week, as the plane touches down in Texas, Ferguson says an affirmation to herself: “Whatever happens, I’m going to be all right.” She understands her purpose and her place within the order of things. “There’s no movement in our modern-day history that didn’t have with it many people willing to risk their well-being and their lives for something greater,” Ferguson says.

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