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Texas' abortion law led some to get abortion pills in Mexico, with grim consequences

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Since Texas passed an anti-abortion law in September, more and more women have been going to unregulated pharmacies in Mexican border towns to get abortion pills. As NPR's John Burnett reports, this last-resort option could be a sign of what's to come for many others if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The main street of Nuevo Progreso, Mexico - just across the sluggish Rio Grande from Weslaco, Texas - is a chaotic border bazaar that caters to American day-trippers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, sir, you looking for something? Dental procedure...

BURNETT: Prescription eyeglasses, dental fillings, switchblades, tequila shots and over-the-counter medicine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Pharmacy?

BURNETT: You can buy many medications in pharmacies here without a prescription, including the pills that have transformed the way women are ending pregnancies. Today, more than half of all abortions in the United States are achieved by what's called a medication abortion, as opposed to a traditional surgical abortion. The FDA has approved mifepristone and misoprostol as safe and effective in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

An employee in Garcia's Pharmacy named Walter Garza has noticed a sharp increase in a certain clientele.

WALTER GARZA: You should see how many girls come and try to get an abortion. A lot - like, crazy.

BURNETT: He says the two-pill combination, along with his consultation about how to use them, is $400. But he's not a doctor. He's not even a pharmacist.

And where did you learn how to give them advice - medical advice?

GARZA: A doctor, you know (laughter)?

BURNETT: The doctor told you.

GARZA: Yeah.

BURNETT: But you're not trained to give them advice.

GARZA: No. No, I'm not.

BURNETT: A Texas law that went into effect last September all but outlaws abortions after six weeks. And with the U.S. Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, these bans are expected to become more common nationwide. A woman down in the Rio Grande Valley who wants to visit a clinic with the fewest restrictions has to drive 14 hours to Las Cruces, N.M., or she can drive a half hour to the border and visit a Mexican pharmacy.

Under the new law, physicians in Texas are forbidden from prescribing abortion pills. Planned Parenthood and other organizations have posted detailed information online about how to take abortion pills and what to expect, but some customers may just rely on the pharmacy clerk for their information.

CARLA ANGULO-PASEL: And the problem with that, of course, becomes the regulation aspect.

BURNETT: Carla Angulo-Pasel is a political scientist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

ANGULO-PASEL: We don't know if they have been FDA approved, and then you have the problem of not even needing a prescription, so there is no actual medical attention given to these women. Women are just - you know, out of desperation.

BURNETT: There can be complications, says Dr. Roberto Diaz-Gonzalez, an OB/GYN at the Brownsville Community Health Center.

ROBERTO DIAZ-GONZALEZ: Probably the most common complication with the medication will be incomplete abortion. That means that not all the tissue came out. And if the patient doesn't go and look for care, that can create an infection.

BURNETT: With Texas' strict anti-abortion law, women in the Rio Grande Valley have had a foretaste of a post-Roe world, but activists have resisted. Nancy Cardenas-Pena is Texas state director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.

NANCY CARDENAS PENA: People in red states still deserve access to abortion care, and so we'll continue fighting every single step of the way in areas like the Rio Grande Valley.

BURNETT: She offers two examples of pushing back. When the city of Edinburg, Texas, tried to declare itself a, quote, "sanctuary for the unborn" last summer, after hours of public comments against the ordinance, it went nowhere. And last month, when a 26-year-old woman was arrested and jailed for murder in Rio Grande City for having a self-induced abortion, the abortion rights community swung into action to win her release. Ultimately, the charges were dropped.

John Burnett, NPR News, McAllen, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.