UPDATE June 24, 2022: The Supreme Court just overturned Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old precedent guaranteeing the right to an abortion in the United States in a 6-3 decision. In an ruling written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito, the court ruled: “The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion; Roe and Casey are overruled; and the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.”
MONTERREY, Mexico — Fernanda had been on birth control for more than 10 years, so she went into denial when her period didn’t come. Finally, she rented a car and drove to the nearest abortion clinic two and a half hours away, in San Antonio. But then a nurse said the embryo had a heartbeat, and told Fernanda that she wasn’t allowed to get an abortion because her pregnancy was too far along.
“The staff was friendly, but they could not give me the pill,” said Fernanda, 29, a nursing student in Laredo, Texas. “They told me I was six weeks and five days pregnant. They told me to go to Oklahoma to get the abortion pill over there.” A 10-hour drive from Laredo, the trip was both too far and too expensive for her.
Desperate to terminate her pregnancy, Fernanda instead decided to take a three-hour bus ride to Monterrey, Mexico, with her mom to obtain the abortion pills denied her in Texas. That’s where she met Vanessa Jiménez, an abortion-rights activist who has started to see more women from the U.S. seeking help. “I didn’t want the baby to grow any more,” Fernanda said.
The legal landscape for obtaining abortions has turned upside down over the past year in ways few could have envisioned. As the U.S. has moved toward restricting abortion, Mexico has moved closer to legalizing it. Obtaining abortions pills is now considerably easier in Mexico than in some parts of the U.S. A growing number of Americans are already turning to Mexico in the wake of Texas’ new law that bans abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, including in cases of rape and incest, and offers awards of at least $10,000 to civilians who successfully sue anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion.
Before the Texas law went into effect, in September, the activist Jiménez said that “at most two people” from the U.S. reached out to her per year seeking abortion pills. Jiménez provided Fernanda with the pills to terminate her pregnancy and accompanied her by text message through the process. Since the law change in Texas, between 15 and 20 Americans per month have been calling and texting asking her for help, she said.
Abortion rights activists Sandra Cardona (left) and Vanessa Jiménez (right) outside their home office in Monterrey, Mexico. Photo: Emily Green for VICE World News.
Should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, as many expect, the number of Americans seeking abortions in Mexico—through pills or at a clinic—is likely to skyrocket.
After the nurses suggested Fernanda seek help in Oklahoma, she returned home in a panic and started googling options. She found a video by VICE News about abortions that featured Jiménez and her partner, Sandra Cardona, and tracked them down. On March 28, Fernanda took a bus to Monterrey, and a taxi to the activists’ house. There, she took the first of two abortion pills—mifepristone, which stops a pregnancy from growing—and returned to Texas the same afternoon. “I was scared I was going to start bleeding in the bus,” she said.
It’s legal for Americans to obtain abortions in Mexico, but Fernanda asked VICE World News not to use her real name because she’s scared of repercussions.
Back home in Texas, she took the second pill—misoprostol, which induces contractions and expels the fetal tissue—an experience she compared to being on her period “with more intense cramps and bleeding.” One day after that, she took the entrance exam to get into a nursing school program, pressing through despite the cramps.
“I felt like my birth control failed me and I had no choice but to abort,” Fernanda said. “I felt horrible doing what I did, but I could not have the baby. It was draining me.”
Abortion-rights activists in Mexico are preparing for a surge in demand from American women like Fernanda. After years of creating a network dedicated to providing safe abortions, they are aiming to saturate the northern Mexico border with abortion pills that can be dispensed to the U.S. at a moment’s notice.
“We are organizing who can be in Chihuahua, Tijuana, Tamaulipas, Coahuila. The idea is to have the entire border stockpiled and able to provide medicine,” Jiménez said, adding that advocates are also training people to accompany American patients through an abortion by text and video. “It used to be that women who had money went to McAllen [Texas] or Houston to abort. I never imagined this.”
The idea that Mexico would become a savior for Americans desperate to terminate unwanted pregnancies was, even a year ago, virtually unthinkable.
For decades, obtaining an abortion in Mexico could land a woman in prison throughout most of the country, while in the U.S. access was much easier. Then, in September, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional. While just eight of 32 states in Mexico have enacted laws decriminalizing abortion, the court’s decision means people who seek abortions across Mexico should no longer be arrested or prosecuted, activists say.
At the same time, Texas has moved to the other extreme. In April, a woman in South Texas was charged with murder for causing a “self-induced abortion.” The charges were dropped, but the arrest foreshadowed the possibility of similar prosecutions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
On a quiet residential street in Monterrey, in the northern state of Nuevo León, Jiménez and Cardona dispense abortion pills out of their house and strategize about how to expand their reach. Abortion here remains a criminal offense on the books—except in cases of rape and when the woman’s life is at risk—and the women are operating in a legal gray zone. Mexico’s Supreme Court decision has yet to filter down into changes to Nuevo León’s state laws.
Near the front door, they keep a dozen envelopes stashed with abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved use of the pills for up to 10 weeks of pregnancy, and the World Health Organization says they are safe for up to 12 weeks, including for use at home. Jiménez and Cardona have given them to women as far along as 20 weeks, a practice they insist is safe.
After a local congressmen sought to prosecute Jiménez for promoting abortions in September 2020, the activists installed cameras outside their house.
“I fear the authorities more than anyone else,” Cardona said. But the city, one of the most affluent in Mexico, is also increasingly dangerous for women. At least 10 girls and women have gone missing in the metropolitan area since April, causing an outcry throughout Mexico and a palpable sense of panic within the city.
Not a day goes by that the activists don't receive calls from people desperate for abortions—young girls, migrants trying to reach the U.S., transgender men. Even the prosecutor’s office has sent women seeking abortions to them, Cardona said. The women ask for a $10 donation for the pills. Jiménez estimates that she accompanies no fewer than 100 people a month going through abortions, by text, video, and in person.
For Fernanda, the nursing student from Texas, seeking help in Mexico was a last resort. When she arrived at the abortion clinic in San Antonio, a crowd of anti-abortion protesters harassed people coming in and out, she said. She had problems opening the door to the clinic and they yelled it was closed and she should “keep the baby and go home.”
Six weeks after the abortion, Fernanda has no regrets. She begins classes in August, and she’s not ready to be a mom, she said. She wants to see a doctor—she’s still spotting from the abortion and wants to make sure everything is OK.
But she’s holding off.
“I’m scared they will know,” she said. “And that I will get in trouble.”
Correction: This story originally said that the Texas law banning abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy went into effect in February. It went into effect in September. We regret the error.