Indigenous Women Rising co-founder Rachel Lorenzo at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Reproductive justice organizations in New Mexico gathered there on Sept. 4 to raise money for abortion care and travel expenses for patients. Organizations included: Indigenous Women Rising, the Mariposa Fund, the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and Bold Futures New Mexico. (Photo by Austin Fisher/Source New Mexico)
Abortion rights and health care access advocates in New Mexico described a sense of heaviness as they took an influx of calls from people seeking abortion services in the fallout of last week’s U.S. Supreme Court order.
In a one-paragraph, unsigned order issued just before midnight on Wednesday, Sept. 1, the court did not strike down a Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks and allows any individual to sue someone who “aids or abets” an abortion after six weeks. It’s the strictest abortion law in the nation.
The next day, the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice saw many new applications, said Director Joan Lamunyon Sanford. The coalition helps people who travel to the state for abortions with lodging, food and meals.
Indigenous Women Rising co-founder Rachel Lorenzo said around 2 a.m. Friday morning, people were still filling out online forms to get help with the costs of abortion procedures, gas, food and child care.
The sudden influx of patients is tapping resources, Lorenzo said.
“It has been really stressful to make sure that we have enough money to accommodate, that we have the infrastructure in place that is culturally responsible, that we’re getting the word out to as many funds and clinics and patients as possible,” they said.
Culturally responsible reproductive rights work takes into account the whole range of conditions experienced by indigenous people seeking abortion, they said, like not having enough money for food, let alone abortion care; not having time to get to an abortion clinic because they’re taking care of elders; or not having clean, running water and electricity at home.
A bounty system
Texas passed SB 8 in May, and it took effect on Sept. 1. It makes abortion after six weeks of pregnancy illegal. Abortion rights proponents point out that many people don’t know they are pregnant before six weeks. For the last three and a half years IWR has been operating, the average gestation of their callers’ pregnancies has been 10 weeks and four days, Lorenzo said.
The new Texas law allows any individual to sue someone who performs or helps facilitate an abortion after six weeks — they don’t need to have a personal connection to the patient in order to do it. This effectively creates a bounty system where anyone can sue someone for facilitating an abortion and win money, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. The law “deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors’ medical procedures.”
Charlene Bencomo is the executive director of Bold Futures New Mexico, one of the organizations that pushed the New Mexico Legislature in 2021 to clear from the books a dormant law that banned abortion but was no longer in play after Roe v. Wade. “We are still living in a devastating global pandemic,” she said. “This is a time where we need to rely on our neighbors and our loved ones, whoever. And this is legislation through fear. This is turning people on one another. It is turning people on their neighbors. It’s adding fear into our sacred relationships.”
Lamunyon Sanford said the Texas law will divide families.
“As people of faith, we’re supposed to support each other, and we’re supposed to support each other because we love and trust one another,” she said. “We trust that people who made a decision about abortion have done that according to their faith and values. We’re all made in the image of God, no?”
‘The government is not going to save us’
Texas and other states already have “targeted restrictions on abortion providers,” which force clinics to spend money to jump through legal hoops rather than provide care, Lorenzo said. Those restrictions can include costly and often burdensome building requirements or mandates to have transfer agreements or admitting privileges to local hospitals that can be difficult to obtain in states hostile to abortion.
“Over, and over and over again, we see clinics needing to increase the cost of care, which puts a strain on us,” Lorenzo said. “But they gotta still operate.”
Bencomo said the change means people in Texas with more privilege can access abortions now, because it requires travel money and stable relationships that allow for time away.
This continues to disproportionately affect women of color, and those people who are in low-income situations, people who are in abusive relationships, people who have been sexually assaulted.
– Charlene Bencomo, executive director, Bold Futures News Mexico
Any abortion ban affects Native people, Lorenzo said, and makes health care uncertain.
“We operate under the guise that the government is not going to save us,” they said. “The government was inherently created to annihilate us, and we can’t ever rely on legislators or any court to protect our right to make decisions about our body.”
In the earlier stages of the pandemic, abortion providers and abortion funds saw patients coming to New Mexico because Texas and other states had banned abortions on the grounds that they were not considered “essential” health care procedures and were a waste of scarce personal protective equipment.
“It’s only going to multiply,” Bencomo said. “We will see an influx, but it will be only those who have the means.”
Disaster on top of disaster
Abortion providers in Texas will do what they can to connect people with clinics in Oklahoma — or Louisiana, when and if they have electricity in the wake of Hurricane Ida, Lamunyon Sanford said.
But those states are also more hostile to abortion, with more restrictions like mandatory ultrasounds or mandatory waiting periods, she said.
“It might be closer for people to go to, say, Oklahoma, but it might be faster and easier for them to come to New Mexico, because we don’t have these arbitrary restrictions,” she said.
I just have a gut feeling that New Mexico will need to absorb more patients from Texas than other states.
– Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director, New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Abortion funds connect pregnant people with financial resources so they can pay for an abortion procedure. At this point, people who organize abortion funds say they also need money to cover people’s travel expenses like hotel rooms or gas or plane fare, on top of the cost of the procedure in New Mexico.
More side effects
Bencomo and Lorenzo said the new Texas law will further endanger and criminalize people who have miscarriages and go to the hospital for emergency treatment, who could be falsely accused of having tried to self-induce an abortion.
“We have had to do policy education with our callers, because they don’t know the law in their state,” Lorenzo said. “And it is on purpose: the people who make these laws make it so difficult to understand to discourage us from knowing what the law is.”
Lorenzo said they expect similar laws to start passing in more red states, where a majority of callers are located so far. They’re also expecting to see people who are further into their pregnancies calling for help as they navigate child care for their other children, work leave needs and violent home situations.
“That’s what I’m really afraid of. And of course, the further along in the pregnancy, the more expensive it gets,” they said.
Native men need to step up for the rest of their communities, and tribal leaders everywhere can do a better job speaking up and learning about reproductive health, Lorenzo said, because their own members will be impacted.
“Our tribal leaders need to understand that their community is full of not just women, but queer people, trans people, intersex people who feel so ashamed about their bodies, about the things that our bodies do, that it gets further stigmatized,” Lorenzo said. “Native men really should listen to us more. Because it’s the majority of tribal communities’ leadership that are cis-het men who hold these very conservative views. And until they start listening to us and taking our concerns seriously, our communities are not going to be as safe as they could be.”
SCOTUS sidesteps constitutional right to abortion
Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider in Texas, along with other advocacy organizations and providers, asked the Supreme Court to halt the implementation of the law until the court could make a determination about its constitutionality.
The court allowed the law to stand. Justices did not rule on the constitutional issues but instead argued that it presents “complex and novel antecedent procedural questions.” Justices implied that because private citizens — and not the state — are empowered by the law to sue anyone who facilitates abortions after six weeks, the plaintiffs might not have a case against the state of Texas.
Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University, wrote that this private enforcement scheme is meant to avoid a confrontation with the court’s previous holdings in Roe v. Wade in 1973 and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey in 1992. The broadly-written Texas law also attempts to sidestep these decades-old rulings that a person has a constitutional right to an abortion by not allowing patients to be sued. Doctors, clinics or anyone else who facilitates an abortion are liable instead.
Even before the order came down, clinics and physicians were abiding by the law out of fear that they would get sued, and nearly every abortion provider in Texas stopped providing abortions for anyone who is more than six weeks pregnant.
Abortion rights proponents in Texas are calling for immediate donations and support to Texas abortion funds.
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