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How Texas Made It Impossible for Undocumented Immigrants to Get Abortions

A combination of photo ID requirements and the closure of clinics has many undocumented immigrants in Texas resorting to DIY abortions, advocates say.

Pro-choice protesters march on the Texas State Capitol in 2013, fighting similar legislation. Photo via Flickr user Ann Harkness

Texas is already notorious for passing restrictive abortion legislation, but a new law that went into effect at the beginning of 2016 has taken it even further. The law, known as HB 3994, requires all abortion clinics to ask their patients for government-issued identification; it's meant to ensure minors only get abortions with parental consent or approval by a judge in emergency circumstances. But the ID requirement also severely limits abortion access for undocumented immigrants.


This is significant because Texas had the second-highest undocumented population in the US as of 2010, with an estimated 1.8 million undocumented residents, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

HB 3994, which was signed into law last July, obliges every abortion physician to request "proof of identity and age" from each patient. Acceptable identity documents include driver's licenses and identification cards from a US state or from a Canadian province, according to Texas's Family Code. Local identifications from Mexico and other countries, however, are not accepted documents.

"It's patently discriminatory," said Heather Busby, executive director of the reproductive rights organization NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. "By saying you can have a Canadian ID, it is discriminating against all other countries. The reality is we know it's people from Latin America who are hit the hardest."

The bill allows patients to present a variety of other IDs, including their birth certificate or passport, but Busby said undocumented immigrants were unlikely to have such papers in the country.

The identification requirement is just the latest blow to reproductive rights in Texas. The controversial anti-abortion bill HB 2, which is currently being challenged in the US Supreme Court, included restrictions that prompted half the state's 41 clinics to close, and could soon leave only ten clinics to serve all 5.4 million women in Texas.


"Texas politicians have worked very hard to cut short women's constitutional rights to abortion," said David Brown, staff attorney for the national Center for Reproductive Rights. "Adding this unnecessary requirement is simply a tool to prevent some women from being able to access abortions. The purpose of this bill is the same as HB 2—to saddle women with unnecessary requirements, just as HB 2 creates unnecessary medical requirements for clinics."

HB 2 rules have already shuttered all but one clinic south of San Antonio, where many of the state's Latinos live. Now women must endure long wait times at the last remaining clinic in McAllen or travel north to find another provider.

"We know wait times have gone up and delays have occurred, and with Texas's 20-week cap on abortions, timing is a huge issue, so a woman might have to travel to another clinic in another city or another state," said Amanda Williams, executive director of the Lilith Fund, an Austin-based organization that helps women pay for abortions in Texas.

But traveling north means crossing Border Patrol checkpoints (agents check individuals' immigration status up to 100 miles north of the border). Undocumented women must decide whether to risk deportation to reach another clinic.

"We hear from undocumented people who are really concerned about the checkpoints they might have to cross to get an abortion. If you're undocumented, you don't have the privilege of going to other cities like people without identification barriers, because you have to cross the checkpoint," Williams told me. "The compilation of these laws is a blatantly obvious attack on undocumented people."


"When you drastically reduce access to safe and legal abortions you see more women turning to self abortion or illegal abortion." —David Brown

The cost of abortions—around $500 on average, according to the Guttmacher Institute—is yet another obstacle for low-income women, including many undocumented immigrants. The stigma of visiting a clinic can also deter some women from going. Sofia, a volunteer who escorts women to Whole Woman's Health, the only clinic in McAllen, said fear was a pervasive experience for the patients she encountered.

"They're afraid of lots of things. The situations they've been in have already been traumatic, and then they're afraid to reach out because they don't know if they'll be treated or deported," said Sofia, who requested her last name not be used to protect her from abortion opponents. "The uncertainty creates a lot of fear for them, and then they have to figure out how to pay for it and who's going to help them. A cousin of mine needed these services, and people were making it so much harder, protesting outside the clinic and making a difficult situation even more difficult."

In the face of these obstacles, undocumented women are increasingly turning to DIY abortions. As many as 240,000 females in Texas have attempted a self-induced abortion, according to a study released in November by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project. The report also found that Latina women living in counties that bordered Mexico were "significantly more likely to know someone who had attempted self-induction or to have done it themselves."


"Given that the populations we found to be most familiar with abortion self-induction are among those to have been most directly affected by the closure of abortion clinics in the state, we suspect that abortion self-induction will increase as clinic-based care becomes more difficult to access," the researchers predicted.

Advocates suspect that since HB 3994's passage, self-induced abortions have indeed increased in the Latina community. Brown, with the Center for Reproductive Rights, said such a trend was nearly guaranteed.

"At one clinic, a client called and said, 'Tell me what in my medicine cabinet [or] under my kitchen sink I can use,'" Brown said. "When you drastically reduce access to safe and legal abortions, you see more women turning to self abortion or illegal abortion. The harder you make it for women, the more of that kind of conduct and desperation we're going to see."

Texas Governor Greg Abbott's office did not immediately return calls and emails requesting comment about the bill's effect on undocumented women. But Abbott did issue a statement when he signed the bill into law that boasted about its defense of the "unborn."

"Lawmakers made significant strides to further protect innocent life and ensure the health and safety of mothers across Texas with this bill," the statement said. "HB 3994 successfully closes loopholes in current judicial bypass laws that were exploited to circumvent parent authority and yielded more abortions to minors. I am proud to have signed HB 3994 into law, and, as governor, I will continue to ensure that the State of Texas leads the way in protecting our most vulnerable—the unborn."

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