THE BLOG

Border Crossings, Both Ways

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET
  • Gloria Feldt Author, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power

Mention the U.S.-Mexico border and you set off political hot buttons. Everyone knows the two countries share complex historical, economic, and cultural relationships. But one relationship is seldom acknowledged: the movement of women across the border in both directions to obtain abortions over the years.

Sarah was a 22-year-old law school student at the University of Texas when she became pregnant in 1964. Her future husband was planning to attend law school after she graduated and got a job. They agreed they didn't want to have a child before marriage and felt they both deserved the chance to finish school. Together, they went to Piedras Negras across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, where she had an illegal, but thankfully safe, abortion.

Jane was a young housewife with three preschool children in a southern Arizona ranching community in pre-pill 1958. The thought of caring for four children on a budget that strained hard to feed three had stressed her relationship with her husband almost to the breaking point. As much as she loved her children, Jane cried for days and thought she would either go insane or kill herself if she had to have another child.

Three women friends who had made the journey previously accompanied Jane across the border to Nogales, Mexico, where abortions were illegal, as they were then in Arizona and every other state in the U.S, While the women had heard of doctors in Phoenix who would terminate pregnancies for $1,000 or more, Jane couldn't begin to afford that. So for the U. S. equivalent of $100, Jane had an abortion. She bled profusely and was treated for infection after she returned -- but she regained her emotional balance, and was able to hold the family together. She later volunteered for the local NARAL affiliate determined that American women should not suffer the humiliation, indignities, and sheer terror she experienced.

Jane is a composite of women who have told me their stories over the years.

Sarah is Sarah Weddington, a Methodist minister's daughter who at age 26 became the youngest woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her winning case was the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that legalized abortion throughout the U.S and has since saved the lives, health, and dignity of millions of women. She later served in the Texas legislature and the Carter administration; she remains a leading advocate for women.

Since Roe, and until very recently, Mexican women of means have routinely traveled to the U.S. for safe, legal abortions, much as Sarah and Jane traveled to Mexico in a previous generation for illegal ones.

A seismic shift occurred last April when Mexico City decriminalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

While they wait for what they predict will be a favorable ruling by the Federal Supreme Court, reproductive rights activists are consolidating their gains by training medical and social workers in counseling women respectfully about all their pregnancy options. According to Maria Luisa Sanchez Fuentes, executive director of GIRE, Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Eligida/Information Group on Reproductive Choice, they are also working to ensure that public hospitals meet the law's requirements to provide abortion services free of charge as part of routine healthcare, and that the law's provisions for universal access to birth control methods and sexuality education to prevent unintended pregnancy from occurring in the first place are fully in force.

Abortion remains illegal in most of Mexico, except for cases of rape, incest, and in some states certain other reasons. Activists like Sanchez Fuentes are working to change that, heartened by public support in Mexico City, where the slogan is "Women decide, society respects, and the state guarantees."

Abortion, legal or not, exists in all societies because women the world over want a few simple things: to make a decent life for the children they have -- in the U.S., over 60 percent are mothers with one or more children when they choose abortion --and the right to their own lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. And because unintended pregnancies inevitably occur for a variety of reasons.

The difference is that when abortion is clandestine, women die or suffer debilitating illness such as infection or infertility. And in a profound sense, the psychological stigma of going to the back alley instead of the front door of a medical facility is harder to bear than the risk of infection, for it signals complete disregard for women's moral capacity to think and make responsible decisions.

Will women's rights activists in Mexico learn the lessons from U.S. that "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance" as Thomas Jefferson famously cautioned, so that the organized backlash against reproductive self-determination for women does not bring political setbacks like those in the U.S.?

Will we in the U.S. learn the lessons from Mexico, and make sure women have not just legal affirmation of the human right to make their own childbearing decisions, but also access to preventive services that reduce the need for abortion and full access to abortion services regardless of ability to pay? Or will we reach a point that American women must resort once more to crossing the border to Mexico for essential health care and respect they can't get at home?

Next: Safe, Legal, (accessible) and Rare