New Mexico braces for influx after Supreme Court allows Texas abortion restrictions

Italia Aranda, who works as an abortion care counselor at the Mariposa Fund in New Mexico, expects to be putting in even longer hours now that a restrictive anti-abortion law has gone into effect in neighboring Texas.

She’ll be far from the only one.

Across New Mexico — where there are few restrictions on abortion — providers, abortion funds and practical support groups are preparing, financially, logistically and emotionally, to help provide care to an anticipated influx of patients from Texas, who will no longer be able to receive it in their home state.

Experts say Texas State Bill 8, the new anti-abortion law, is the most restrictive one allowed by courts to stand in decades.

“Every time Texas passes some kind of bill restricting abortion, we see more people seeking care here in New Mexico. And this time, with S.B. 8., the worst, most restrictive we’ve ever seen, we’re definitely preparing to serve a significant number of additional patients seeking refuge from the new Texas law,” said Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an Albuquerque-based abortion fund that partners with other funds and networks across Texas and the United States.

Texas patients must seek abortion care elsewhere 

S.B. 8, which went into effect Wednesday after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block the law, bans abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, a point that could occur as early as six weeks into pregnancy — before many women even know they are pregnant.

And unlike other states' anti-abortion laws, Texas’ unique ban is enforced through private citizens' lawsuits against abortion providers, rather than through state government. It includes first-of-its-kind language that allows anyone, even people outside Texas, to sue an abortion provider or anyone else who helped someone get the procedure after the six-week limit and seek damages of $10,000 per defendant.

Those suits are all but certain to cripple the ability of Texas-based groups — that provide everything from financial help to pay for abortion care, as well as practical support such as transportation, lodging and child care — to operate, because they’ll have to spend their limited time and resources defending themselves against lawsuits. Many stopped seeing patients who were more than six weeks pregnant earlier in August.

With the help of abortion funds and practical support groups in next-door New Mexico, however, many of these women will be able to still receive the care they need. Clinics in New Mexico, experts explained, are the closest possible destinations many women needing care in large parts of Texas can reach quickly. In addition, New Mexico doesn’t have any legal restrictions on abortion on the books.

According to Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that studies reproductive health rights, New Mexico remains just one of six states where it's legal to have an abortion at any point during a pregnancy — although only a handful of clinics will perform the procedure late into a pregnancy, and only under certain circumstances.

A handful of the other five states with no gestational limits on abortion — in particular, Colorado and Oregon — are likely to see a substantial uptick in Texas patients, too, although New Mexico remains the closest option for many, experts said. The other states are Alaska, New Jersey and Vermont; a seventh, New Hampshire, currently has no gestational limits, but will impose one at 24 weeks of pregnancy, as of Jan. 1 due to a recently passed state law, Nash said.

Leaders of abortion funds throughout Texas, including the Lilith Fund, Fund Texas Choice and the Frontera Fund, said they had for years been referring women who were already past the state's previous gestational limits to New Mexico funds and clinics. Those leaders said they will continue to do so, if they continue to have the financial resources.

Subsequently, abortion funds and practical support groups in New Mexico are working to increase their fundraising, staffing, budgets and volunteer networks to accommodate the expected influx from Texas.

Sanford said her group has fielded as many calls from women, including from Texas, through eight months in 2021 as it had through all of 2020, and has brought its volunteer staff of about 20 people back, ending the group’s pandemic protocols due to anticipated demand. The group has also increased its fundraising targets for the year, citing S.B. 8, by about 33 percent to $40,000.

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, which operates two clinics in New Mexico that perform procedural and medication abortions, has already seen 229 patients from Texas so far this year, a substantial uptick from 2020, CEO Vicki Cowart said. The group has recently seen large numbers of Texans seek care at its facilities; prior to March 2020, when Texas Gov. Greg Abbott used emergency powers to suspend access to most abortion care in the state due to the pandemic, the group's two New Mexico facilities had seen, on average, 13 patients a month from Texas. That number swelled to 61 in April 2020, following Abbott’s move and has averaged around 28 a month since, Cowart said.

The increase across the group’s clinics in the four states in its region was also dramatic. Following Abbott’s suspension of abortion care, the group, which also operates clinics in Wyoming, Colorado and southern Nevada, saw a twelvefold increase in the number of patients from Texas. The group is expecting a continued substantial influx of Texas patients at its Nevada and Colorado clinics, too, though officials believe the increase will be highest at its New Mexico clinics.

“There just aren’t the kind of restrictions in New Mexico that there are in Texas. There’s no waiting period. Some providers can take care of patients very late in gestational age. It’s cultural, but it’s also policy. It’s a place that believes people should have access to the health care they need,” Cowart said in an interview. She said her group is making aggressive efforts to add staff and volunteers to the clinics it operates in all of its four states.

Meanwhile, Indigenous Women Rising, a small abortion fund based in New Mexico that focuses on helping Latina and Native American women, recently expanded its small staff by 33 percent, according to co-founder Nicole Martin, expanding its full-time staff to four and adding a part-time midwife. 

And the Mariposa Fund, which focuses on helping undocumented women receive abortion care in New Mexico, is upping its fundraising to try to meet the anticipated demand.

“We’re really lucky in New Mexico, we have for years and years been able to fight back and hold the line against the harm we’re seeing come out of Texas,” said Ellie Rushforth, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, who works on behalf of multiple abortion funds and clinics in the state.

Barriers remain

But, Rushforth, Nash and others warned that, even as New Mexico and groups working within its borders will welcome women seeking abortion care, it remains an arduous journey for most of the women forced to make it.

With the majority of abortion care in Texas shut down, the average one-way driving distance to a clinic will increase twentyfold, from 12 miles to 248 miles, according to Guttmacher’s Nash.

Undocumented women in Texas, in particular, will have to make difficult choices about crossing Customs and Border Protection checkpoints in areas within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, Rushforth and others said.

Many of them may be forced to opt against crossing state lines: the University of Texas at Austin's Texas Policy Evaluation Project predicts that, with S.B. 8 in effect, around 80 percent of Texans seeking an abortion would not be able to obtain one in-state and 46 percent of Texans seeking an abortion may be forced to continue their pregnancies.

Meanwhile, many patients will have to miss several days of work (and the ensuing pay) to make out-of-state trips to receive the medical care. And the terrain — both Albuquerque and Santa Fe are flanked to their east by mountains and canyons — can present a dizzying amount of travel, especially if by land.

“Many of these women are going to have to make choices that pit their own safety, and the safety of their family, and receiving necessary health care, against one another,” Rushforth said.

“There is a lot to be proud of as it pertains to the policy and legal landscape with abortion in New Mexico,” she added. “But the practical barriers people face when traveling to receive access to abortion, including to here, are breathtaking.”

Those added barriers are not lost on Aranda, the Mariposa Fund staffer, who said with a sad sigh that she believed the intent behind S.B. 8 was never to outlaw abortion in Texas.

“The whole point of this law, really, is to just make our job harder. It’s not to end abortion, people will still seek abortion care. It’s just to make it so we as providers can’t thrive, so that our patients can’t thrive. And that's exactly what it’s doing.”

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