MEXICO CITY — Abortion pills smuggled into the United States from Mexico inside teddy bears. A New York home used as a pill distribution hub. A small apartment just south of the U.S.-Mexico border converted into a safe place for women to end their pregnancies.
Networks of Mexican feminist collectives working with counterparts in the United States are ramping up their efforts to help women in the U.S. who are losing access to abortion services to end their pregnancies.
With the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the landmark decision that gave women the right to access abortion last week, these networks of activists are preparing to be busier than ever. So far this year, according to the organizations, they have helped at least 1,700 women living the U.S. who have sought their help.
The number may seem anecdotal, but it’s exponentially higher than what they saw before. With a number of U.S. states already enacting abortion bans since the court overturned Roe v. Wade last week, the activists expect the pace to continue increasing.
“The demand is going to triple,” said Sandra Cardona of “I Need an Abortion,” a collective based in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey, 138 miles from Texas. “Before we accompanied about five women a month from the United States; now there are five to seven a week.”
These organizations’ strategy is clear: a self-managed abortion, that is to say, putting the abortion-inducing misoprostol and mifepristone in the hands of women who want to end their pregnancies and accompanying them, usually virtually, when they take the drugs.
The drugs are legal in the United States and more than half of the abortions performed there in 2020 used them, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization. But there they require a doctor’s prescription, some states require a doctor to be present and they are usually taken in women’s health clinics, many of which have been forced to close.
In addition to the 13 states that already have laws banning abortion, there are another half-dozen that have almost complete bans or that do not permit them after six weeks, when many women do not know they are pregnant.
So there’s no doubt that the alternative will be abortions at home. And that is something with which the Mexican activists have a lot of experience. Even though Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled last year that it was unconstitutional to consider abortion a crime and 10 states have made it legal, not all have abortion services and abortion, with some exceptions, remains a crime in 22 states of the strongly Catholic country.
“At the same time that we were taking it for granted in the United States, people in Mexico, advocates in Mexico, have been working and testing narratives and building, building power, convincing people that their message was the correct one,” said Texas state lawmaker Erin Zwiener during a visit to Mexico in May.
Mexican activists built networks, battled the stigma, pushed for legal changes and little by little made headway, Zwiener said.
Their strategy since January has been the same, but cross-border.
Collectives far from the U.S. border like Unasse in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula coordinate donations from abroad to buy the pills, explained Amelia Ojeda, one of its members. Others to the north, focus on getting the pills into the United States inside toys, jars of vitamins or sewn into the hems of clothing.
“Those who are detected at the border, it’s like you were crossing drugs,” said Marcela Castro of Green Tide Chihuahua, a state bordering Texas. There are also women who live between the two countries and carry them when they fly.
The pills are then stored at so-called “medicine banks,” that are really private homes in strategic cities in Texas or even in New York where abortion remains legal.
From there they are distributed by low-profile volunteers by any means available -- hand-to-hand, through the mail, etc. -- to women across the country who need them. Most are in states like Texas and Oklahoma that have imposed bans, but also states where abortion remains legal but women prefer to end their pregnancies in the privacy of their homes.
“The new modern menace is a chemical or medical abortion with pills ordered online and mailed directly to a woman’s home,” Randall O’Bannon, an anti-abortion activist, said at a national convention last week in Atlanta. “With Roe headed for the dustbin of history, and states gaining the power to limit abortions, this is where the battle is going to be played out over the next several years”.
“Medication abortion will be where access to abortion is decided,” said Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University College of Law who specializes in reproductive rights, told the AP last month. “That’s going to be the battleground that decides how enforceable abortion bans are.”
Las Libres -- The Free -- one of the most experienced groups in Latin America has a strong network network of allies in Mexico. Just there people have helped 1,500 women living in the United States this year with pills, information and accompaniment.
Veronica Cruz, their director, said that has been possible because of the help of some 100 volunteers, mostly in New York and California. But facing growing demand, she said, they need “more medicine, more hands and more heads that want to collaborate.”
As battles play out in U.S. state courts, the fear among activists grows.
“In such a litigious country (like the United States), the risks are taken seriously,” said Castro of the Chihuahua group. “And they’re besieged on all sides,” she added, noting the financial penalties or even prison sentences that those who help could be subject to in some states.
I Need an Abortion receives women in its office in Monterrey. “The majority tell us they prefer talking and having first-hand information,” they take the pills and cross the border back to Texas, said director Sandra Cardona.
Others decide to have the abortion in the collective’s offices, which is Cardona’s house.
When they arrive, they stand with their mouth hanging open when they see what they call the “aborteria.”
“It’s really crazy,” Cardona explained. “They tell us, ‘but this isn’t a clinic! It isn’t a shady place! It’s not scary!’”
“Well, of course, it’s a home!” she said.
Cardona has opened their doors to women for five years. Since May, they have outfitted a small apartment on the second floor of her home with a desk and sofa bed where women have gone through the whole process in privacy or with accompaniment based on their preference.
At first, women don’t believe they give away the pills for free, because some have been scammed online, and they’re surprised to feel so psychologically protected.
One even told them “that if she didn’t have to pay we weren’t a serious organizations,” Cardona said laughing. They give them the option of making a donation. “Our Paypal link has never been used so much.”
After their abortion, most realize they could have done it in their own homes. And that, says the activist, is important because the message gets passed on.
So far, most of the women seeking assistance from the collectives in Monterrey and Chihuahua have been Latina and Black.
Cruz was surprised because most of those who contacted The Free spoke English, suggesting to her a big pending issue: undocumented migrants.
“The women who most need it, who don’t even have internet access, still haven’t made it to us,” she said.