Perla Martínez is used to checking Instagram, not for viral videos or photos of landscapes and murals, but for private messages from pregnant women who need help in Peru, Ecuador and other Latin American countries.
Women who live under governments with near-total bans on abortions. Women who need medicines or options to leave their country behind and travel to states in México where they can choose to safely end their pregnancy.
Martínez is a guide with Las Borders, a feminist collective she co-founded in Mexicali. The group helps people who are pregnant and who, due to health, life, rape or other reasons of their own choosing, decide not to give birth. The guides call themselves “companions,” and offer help online for abortions at home and with access to abortion medicines.
But checking social media and seeing messages with pleas from women in Arizona and Texas? That seemed strange.
Women and pregnant people in the United States have had the constitutional right to abortion for almost half a century. Years before México’s Supreme Court voted unanimously to decriminalize abortion in 2021, Mexican women had traveled to the U.S. to get abortions.
The legal change for U.S. women’s health and human rights paved the way for bans on abortion in about half the nation’s states. The effects echo among some abortion-rights advocates who are reminded of the days before Roe v. Wade, when women had less reproductive freedom, and when many more suffered or died due to lack of legal healthcare.
The messages that Martínez has seen on social media from the U.S. since June are very real, from very real women and pregnant people who need help now. In Arizona, Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich has pushed for a near-total ban on abortions, choosing to enforce restrictions without exceptions for rape or incest and dating back to an 1864 legal code, when the Civil War was still raging, when the art of surgery was in its infancy, and nearly 50 years before women could vote.
Through social media Martínez answers people from across the border trying to find ways to safely end their pregnancy, after five justices — four men and one woman — from the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a constitutional right to abortion that was the law of the land for almost 50 years.
“We can vanish those borders that have been imposed on us for years, and support their right to make decisions about their gestation,” Martinez said. “Las Borders and other border groups are helping them exercise their choice and access reproductive justice.”
In 2021, when México’s Supreme Court voted unanimously to decriminalize abortion, abortion-rights advocates lauded the action as a landmark shift for human-rights that would compel nations across the globe to follow suit. The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional Coahuila’s total criminalization of abortion, as well as Sinaloa’s stance that life begins at conception.
“Today is a historic day for the rights of all Mexican women and pregnant people,” said Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar in September 2021 of the Coahuila ruling that ended the state’s power to impose three years of prison for women who underwent illegal abortions, or people who aided them. “It is a watershed in the history of the rights of all women, especially the most vulnerable.”
“In both rulings, the court focused on the reproductive rights of those who are pregnant,” said Human Rights Watch in an announcement.
The historic rulings followed years of stalled action for Mexican abortion-rights advocates who had pushed for change after winning a 2007 victory in the nation’s capital. México City officials were the first to decriminalize first-trimester abortions.
“México City’s abortion legislation is an important first step in improving reproductive rights, but unsafe abortions will only be eliminated if similar abortion legislation is adopted across the entire country,” wrote scholars Davida Becker and Claudia Díaz Olavarrieta in a 2013 study.
People in México continued fighting for abortion rights in a nation where religious advocates pushed back in the world’s second-largest Catholic population.
Fifteen years later, eight of 32 states in México have joined the country’s capital and decriminalized abortion. States in México that border the Southwest are now the closest option for many people in parts of Southern Arizona or for those who can’t travel to Tucson, where Planned Parenthood is working for access to abortions by health-care providers who aren’t afraid of being sued amid enduring legal chaos.
México also provides stability for people to plan an abortion.
The whiplash in Arizona court rulings since June and the conflicting state laws criminalizing abortion have left people without vital information to understand their reproductive rights, and forced clinics into an alarming cycle of stopping access to abortions, re-starting, and then ending it again. Even state officials are confused, including the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which is demanding clarity from Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and urging a special legislative session for lawmakers to weigh in.
An impending legal case may soon compel more Arizonans to turn to México if a court decides to reinstate the 1864 ban again.
That case is tied to the Arizona Court of Appeals on Oct. 7 granting Planned Parenthood Arizona’s request for an emergency stay of a Sept. 23 ruling when Pima County Superior Court Judge Kellie Johnson lifted an injunction that had been in place for 50 years. Johnson’s ruling had allowed the 1864 near-total abortion ban to take effect, and abortion clinics statewide suspended services.
In yet another abrupt turnabout, abortion is now legal in Arizona. The Arizona Court of Appeals granted Planned Parenthood Arizona’s request for an emergency stay of a Sept. 23 ruling when Pima County Judge Kellie Johnson…
Meanwhile, Martínez says Las Borders is expanding its support system, but it’s not the only option. Women and pregnant people with means can also travel to clinics in México states that welcome anyone — from Arizona, Texas and across the globe — who need to cross the border for their abortion and health and human rights.
In Mexicali, Profem is one of the clinics where women can get safe and legal abortions, using medication or through surgery. Luisa García is director at Profem clinic, which has clinics in four México cities.
García said phone calls asking for information are increasing since the Supreme Court’s June ruling. Now, the gynecological clinic receives at least 10 calls daily with U.S. area codes.
She’s struggled to make sense of how the tide to decriminalize abortion has turned.
“Never did I think that this was going to happen in the United States,” García said, her voice falling deeper with frustration. “After five decades, what México used to be is happening there.”
First clinic to provide safe abortions in México is now a refuge for the U.S.
For 15 years, Profem has offered options for people who decide to end their pregnancy.
They were the first ones to set up once México City decriminalized abortion in 2007, which allowed many people in other Mexican states and countries, where abortions were illegal, to travel for access to the procedure.
In the clinic’s first year of medical care, Profem performed more than 3,500 legal abortions in México City, according to Garcia. Now, they also have clinics in Pachuca, Mexicali and Tijuana. The two latter cities are part of the state of Baja California, which in 2021 joined in decriminalizing abortion.
Still fearful about new laws criminalizing abortions being passed in different states, women and pregnant people in the U.S. have started to look for alternatives.
“Before we wouldn’t get calls from the United States,” Garcia said. “These past weeks those have increased. We already helped patients from Phoenix, Houston, San Diego, Yuma, Los Angeles, Las Vegas.”
She said they provide surgical services up to 12 weeks’ gestation, and prices range from $200 to $250. The clinic also provides abortion medicines, Mifepristone and Misoprostol. These pills are also are sold in México over the counter at costs ranging from $15 to $60 U.S. dollars.
In 2020 there were about 13,273 abortions performed in Arizona, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services,
Of those, 13,186 were Arizona residents, with about half using surgical methods (6,560) and the other half medications (6,620). About 73% of these abortions happened in Maricopa County, followed by Pima County with 12%. About 41% were Latina or Hispanic, followed by White women with 36%. Abortions among Black women represented about 12%.
Garcia said the majority of new patients they’re seeing are Latinas born in the U.S., but immediately following the Supreme Court ruling they helped four White women who only spoke English. The clinic has providers who speak English and Spanish to “assist them in their language,” she said.
“Though when they are asking for services they tell me they live in Tijuana, Mexicali, San Luis,” Garcia said. “They think we are going to deny them services because they come from another country.”
Garcia explained that you don’t have to be a Mexican citizen, nor provide proof of a local residential address, to get an abortion at the clinic.
“You only have to show an ID, which can be a birth certificate, a driver’s license, school ID, passport,” she said.
The clinic has doctors who speak Portuguese and French. Currently, they also are updating their call center staff to serve patients who only speak English, due to the recent legal changes with abortion in the U.S.
All calls are confidential. and the phone number in Mexicali is 01152 686 125 3337, in Tijuana 01152 663 376 9207 and the general number is 01152 551 090 0088.
“We see many women from other countries. We’ve had Russian, Spanish, Venezuelan, Brazilian, Costa Rican patients,” Garcia said. “Some had the intention of going to the U.S. and their visa had already expired. Others noticed it was cheaper to get care in México.”
To get in touch with the Las Borders guides who can help ease stress around traveling to another country for a safe, legal abortion, people can send a message on Instagram at @las_borders.
Regression and ‘less rights’ in Arizona
While social and feminist movements in Latin America opened the gates toward liberation and reproductive health, the doors of clinics that offer abortions in Arizona and across the U.S. are closing.
Of the 16 sites reporting abortions in 2020, Planned Parenthood, Camelback Family Planning, Family Planning Associates Medical Group and Desert Star Family Planning, saw the majority of people, according to recent data from ADHS.
Those clinics suspended services a few hours after Roe v. Wade was overruled due to the lack of legal clarity in the state.
In early September, at least three sites restarted abortion procedures as they awaited Johnson’s ruling. When Johnson gave Brnovich his choice to enforce the near-total ban dating back to 1864, all clinics in Arizona again suspended abortion procedures.
After the Arizona Court of Appeals’ Oct. 7 ruling granting an emergency stay of Johnson’s ruling, Planned Parenthood Arizona rushed to re-start abortion procedures, but only in Tucson.
Democratic State Sen. Raquel Terán calls recent legal actions a “regression” to more than a century ago in Arizona.
“It’s unimaginable to think that the kids who are now in school have less rights than what I had when I was born 45 years ago,” she said. “It is a shame because no one knows what could be happening physically and mentally for a person who has a forced pregnancy.”
Many doctors say it is inhumane that the law Brnovich is arguing for doesn’t outline which criminal standards will be used to decide when a woman is allowed to get an abortion because “it is necessary to save her life” or when she will be punished.
“It breaks your heart. There were 40 people waiting for an appointment at Planned Parenthood to get a medical abortion services and in the morning the (Supreme Court) ruling came down and they had to be told that they couldn’t be helped there,” Terán said.
To put the new Arizona reality in context for human rights, the lawmaker remembered a trip she took to El Salvador in 2019. She visited women in prisons who were jailed under the country’s strict anti-abortion laws, where ending a pregnancy is prohibited in all cases, and even women who have a miscarriage can be charged with aggravated homicide.
“I can’t forget the story of Sarita, a young woman who fell at home when she was pregnant and when she woke up she was handcuffed to a hospital bed for having lost (the pregnancy),” she said.
Sarita was charged with killing her unborn son and sentenced to years in prison, for a miscarriage she didn’t wish for or cause.
“Once she was released (from the hospital) she wasn’t sent home, but to jail,” Terán said. “When I visited her she had been in prison for nine years, next to her were women who had obstetric emergencies and miscarriages, and were jailed.
Terán fears that in Arizona, under the protection of anti-abortion laws, a series of human rights violations will unfold.
“In Arizona, we’re now at the same level as El Salvador,” she said.
Is Arizona at the same level as El Salvador?
Prior to 1998, when El Salvador banned abortions in all cases, there were exceptions, including for rape and when a pregnancy threatened the mother’s life.
Between January 2000 and early 2011, at least 129 women were prosecuted for abortion or aggravated homicide in El Salvador, according to a Center for Reproductive Rights and Agrupación Ciudadana report.
In the U.S., the decision from the Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade and took away the constitutional right to abortion. Now, each state, if it chooses, could criminalize people who get an abortion. Unlike El Salvador, so far U.S. states have focused on criminalizing providers not patients.
Amid the trend in Latin America toward greater abortion rights, the U.S. and El Salvador, with deeply disparate economic conditions, find common ground when it comes to strict laws that criminalize abortions.
Along with El Salvador and Nicaragua, the U.S. is among the three countries in the Americas to regress in its laws that protect the legal right to abortion in nearly 30 years, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.
While the U.S. regresses, México, Colombia and Argentina are moving to guarantee free and safe access to abortions.
Sara García is an activist and sociologist with Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion). She has defended jailed women in El Salvador.
Latin Americans like García, who have not experienced decades of abortion-rights protections like people in the U.S. have, know that when illegality and criminalization is the law, persecution of women is customary.
“We see the regional trend of progressing (rights), and that is where there’s such a total dissonance with what the U.S. has done,” García said. “The trend in the region is for decriminalization, where the life of a woman is at the center, and removing abortion from the criminal statutes and talking about abortion from a health perspective.”
Human-and abortion-rights advocates must mobilize before prosecutions spread across the U.S., she warned.
“It is time for the north to learn from the south,” said the Salvadorian activist. “For the north to learn from the processes that our partners (in Latin America) are driving that have to do with the life and health of women.”
For García and women who advocate for the rights of imprisoned women, 2009 was a key year because they won Karina’s release. She was the first woman freed after being criminalized for an abortion resulting from an obstetric emergency.
“It was Karina who told us, ‘I’m not the only one, there’s more women who are in the prison,’” she said. “And this is how we created a strategy to liberate women and to socially mobilize.”
México, an option for abortions
Terán said there’s no question that México will be a growing option for Arizonans seeking an abortion.
“State attorneys interpret laws in their own best interest,” said Terán, who is also the president of the Arizona Democratic Party. “In Arizona, we have local, county and state police agencies. There will be a persecution of women.”
“Let’s remember that those who are most impacted, when there’s laws that criminalize, are low-income people, like minorities and the Latino community,” she said.
“A person who has the economic means can leave the country, can travel, even internationally. But those who have an unplanned pregnancy and don’t have the resources are forced to have those pregnancies,” she said.
To cushion the impact of these scenarios, the Profem clinic is working to partner with companies that want to remain anonymous, for now, so that they can support U.S. women who want to travel to México for abortion services.
Legal abortion until 12 weeks’ gestation is allowed in: México City, Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Veracruz, Colima, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Baja California and Baja California Sur.
There are a myriad of factors that could inhibit travel to México for abortion services, like lack of economic resources, fear of being without a support system after a medical procedure and safety and health concerns.
Some people who aren’t familiar with the country may worry about having a health emergency and being treated across the border.
García, of the Profem clinic, said because the medical costs of getting a surgical abortion are less expensive than in the U.S., the savings could be used as travel funds. She said in México an abortion costs about $250, while in the U.S. it can exceed $500.
For those who fear crossing the border, she said the Mexicali clinic is a block away from the international port of entry, so they don’t have to travel long distances within the city if they don’t want to.
“Patients can come with a companion,” García said. For some, “there’s a taboo around coming to México, but due to the change in laws more people will have to come, so that fear will fade with referrals and time.”
García said clinic staff and doctors work to bring comfort to the patients who make the decision to end a pregnancy, they avoid judgment and give space and respect for the final decision each person makes.
“We always help them, never question the patients, what they are going through is already so difficult,” she said. “If they have doubts about the decision, we ask that they take their time to think it through and they can come back another day.”
Most patients leave feeling cared for and at peace, she said.
In 2020, scientists published one of the largest studies to date about emotions following an abortion.
The study found that after five years of having an abortion, 84% of women surveyed had positive emotions or none in relation to their decision to abort. The most common emotion that all groups of women said they felt after five years was relief.
After Roe v. Wade was overturned, more women started sharing their abortion stories, saying they wanted to counter stigmas and stereotypes about the emotions that follow choosing to end a pregnancy.
Josselyn Berry is a spokesperson for the Arizona Democratic Party and a political activist. Following the June Supreme Court ruling, she spoke with Arizona Luminaria to share “a personal experience as someone who has gotten an abortion in Arizona.”
“In my early 20s I had an abortion,” she said. “I was in college, I was dating someone at the time and I found out I was pregnant. Thankfully, I had the option to go to Planned Parenthood. It wasn’t a difficult choice for me. I wasn’t anxious over it. I was really lucky that I was able to make that choice.”
Berry said she didn’t start sharing her abortion story until a couple years ago.
“I am really glad that I did because after I did so, I did have a lot of people come up to me and tell me how meaningful and important it was to hear me share my experience,” she said. “They told me it helped them be more open about their abortions.”
Berry said it is a dark time for women’s health and human rights.
“It feels so medieval to think that in 2022,” she said, “we as a modern society, a modern country that has had so many advancements in our culture and technology and our healthcare, that because of politics and because of the need to want to control women and women’s bodies we’re going back to this law from the 1800s that shouldn’t have any bearing on the reality of today.”
Berry took a deep breath, pausing before sharing what she would say to a woman in Arizona who needs an abortion.
“I’m imagining that I’m talking to myself all those years ago. If I was going through this again and not having the access,” she said. “I think I would tell her please don’t despair, please don’t lose hope, there are still abortion funds in Arizona. There are still resources and people for you to talk to and go to, to help you find an option, because government should not be forcing you to give birth when you don’t want to. You should have the choice that’s best for yourself.”
A new anti-abortion rights landscape in the U.S.
Carole Joffe, an obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive rights professor at the University of California, San Francisco. She’s the author of several books about reproductive health and abortion, and has studied the pre-Roe era in the U.S.
“Medication abortions are extremely safe,” Joffe said. “There will be some injuries and desperate people will do things that are dangerous, but deaths and injuries will look nothing like pre-Roe.”
The biggest danger, she said, will come from the institutions that choose to criminalize girls, women and pregnant people. But there is an anti-abortion movement that is much stronger and more influential than it was in the pre-Roe years, Joffe said.
Anti-abortion groups and legislators are already drawing up bills to prohibit residents in states that restrict abortion from traveling to other states to access the medical procedure.
“We will see battles in every state about crossing state lines,” Joffe said. “Spontaneous abortions and natural miscarriages will be investigated.”
Joffe noted the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network of faith leaders that in the ’60s and ’70s connected women who needed a safe abortion with doctors, before the Roe ruling legalized abortion in 1973.
“If that network existed today, there would be state attorney generals who would start investigating them immediately,” Joffe said.
A Sept. 27 poll showed that 91% of registered Arizona voters believe that abortion should be legal in some way.
Still, anti-abortion advocates in the U.S. have celebrated the win for people who believe having an abortion is a sin.
Cathi Herrod, president of conservative nonprofit Center for Arizona Policy and a longtime anti-abortion advocate, took to Twitter to issue a statement that “Roe v Wade was wrongly decided,” to support Judge Johnson’s ruling that “will protect unborn babies and their mothers,” and applaud Brnovich’s near-total ban on abortions in the state.
“Most abortions are now illegal in Arizona, shifting the focus to caring for women facing unplanned pregnancies,” she wrote. “I am grateful to Arizona’s Attorney Mark Brnovich and his team for their work to uphold the law.”
In the wake of the court’s history-changing decision, others sought ways to make a difference.
Carmen Cornejo didn’t mind waking up early on July 4 to go to a Chandler business and be among the people to sign a petition from Arizonans for Reproductive Freedom.
The initiative sought to gather 356,000 signatures before July 17 to make the November ballot and create an electoral measure to protect reproductive rights.
While the political analyst recognized it was a “nearly lost cause” in a state whose majority-Republican political leaders lauded the overturning of Roe, giving up was not an option.
“I am not going to get tired of signing petitions, of voting for people who support the reproductive rights of women, even though there are many obstacles,” she said, firmly.
As expected, the initiative did not gain enough signatures to make the November ballot. Activists and advocates on all sides believe candidates’ stance on abortion will remain a driving election issue with candidates for Arizona attorney general, governor and other judicial positions that now hold power over abortion rights.
Las Borders: virtual companions for abortion rights
Las Borders was founded in 2017 with headquarters in Mexicali to advocate for the approval of an initiative to legalize abortion in Baja California.
They started organizing earlier this year across borders in anticipation of the U.S. legal battles at the Supreme Court and in states moving to restrict access to abortion and criminalize providers.
“Since January of this year several collectives started to be in touch with organizations in Texas, which in that moment was the state closest to our border that had the toughest restrictions,” Martínez of Las Borders said.
She explained that the majority of women who contact them have the least economic means to travel and pay to get care in surgical centers.
“Sadly, the majority are Latina and Black women, many of them are afraid because they don’t have legal (immigration) status in the country,” she said. “It is important to bring awareness to the privilege that some people have, like in the case of a woman who some weeks ago was able to travel from Arizona to Mexicali, so we could help her with the medication.”
Martínez never imagined that people in the U.S. would look at the advocacy and reproductive rights work that they were doing in Mexicali as “companions,” as a means for supporting and expanding abortion access. The feminist-led group in México are building solid alliances with organizations — on the other side of the border — that are now mirroring the Las Borders model.
She said the companions’ purpose is to accompany women from a distance, “like a type of telemedicine with information that’s trustworthy, secular, safe and stigma-free, and as best as we’re able to, that’s loving and like a sisterhood through online platforms.”
Private clinics like Profem offer more hands-on support for people who want that security.
“The important thing is to contribute and that there are more options. It all depends on women’s needs,” Martínez said.
Las Borders doesn’t charge for their assistance. They have about 120 to 150 companions available per month, who have guided women in many countries, including México, Ecuador, Chile, Barcelona and the U.S.
“Before, women with economic means would go to San Diego to get an abortion,” Martínez said. “Now that dynamic has changed: We are already seeing that more than half of the states in the U.S. are passing extremely restrictive laws or even completely criminalizing abortion.”
Watching a U.S. constitutional right to abortion disappear, has been a grim warning for Martínez, who said it’s important for México to not let its guard down in the fights it’s won decriminalizing abortion.
“Fifty years of victory in the U.S. were abolished by Donald Trump’s politics, who had an important role in this ruling,” she said. “He was a crucial piece in placing conservative judges in power.”
In her years fighting for abortion-rights, Martínez has memorized a quote by the French thinker and existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir: “Never forget that it only takes a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question. These rights can never be taken for granted. You must remain vigilant throughout your life.”
Martínez paused for a moment, breathing deeply.
Then, she said, “Sadly, we are living this … in our own flesh.”
Reporter John Washington contributed to this story
Corrections and Clarifications: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Carole Joffe, an obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive rights professor at the University of California, San Francisco.