Texas abortion law could send women across borders

EL PASO, Texas — Crossing borders is a part of life in El Paso in far West Texas, where people may walk into Mexico to visit family or commute to New Mexico for work. But getting an abortion doesn’t require leaving town.

That could change if a federal judge upholds new Texas rules that would ban abortions at 18 clinics starting Sept. 1, including only one that offers the procedure in El Paso, where one of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the U.S. has come under particular scrutiny at a trial ending Wednesday in Austin.

Without any abortion providers in El Paso, women there would face a 550-mile trip to the nearest place in Texas to legally terminate a pregnancy. Attorneys for the state point out that women wouldn’t really have to drive that far: They could simply go to a clinic 15 minutes away in Santa Teresa, New Mexico.

Opponents of the new rules say that argument shows the goal isn’t to protect women, as supporters contend. New Mexico — which one anti-abortion group mocks as the “anything goes” Wild West of abortion access — does not require the same new standards that Republican Gov. Rick Perry approved in 2013 in the name of protecting women’s health. It also doesn’t require the pre-abortion sonograms that Texas began mandating in 2012.

“It’s hypocritical to say they want to protect women, to say that they want women to have a safe abortion and then take away the clinics and make the women go to another state. How do you care about the women of Texas? They don’t care,” said Gerri Laster, who ran what had been a second abortion clinic in El Paso before it closed in June because of other new mandates.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel is not expected to immediately issue a ruling after closing arguments Wednesday, but he’ll be on a tight timeline.

The law would leave just seven abortion facilities in Texas, all of which would be in major cities and none in the western half of the nation’s second-largest state.

The seven facilities that will remain already have operating rooms, sterile ventilation systems and other hospital-style standards that abortion providers are required to meet under the new Texas law. Outraged abortion clinic owners say they can’t afford to make those upgrades, which they criticize as unnecessary.

But one notable clinic isn’t in a fury: the last one left in El Paso.

That’s partly because the company behind Hilltop Women’s Reproductive Clinic also owns the one in Santa Teresa. Gloria Martinez, the administrative nurse at the El Paso clinic, said that office will say open and simply refer women across state lines for the procedure.

Martinez said business has dropped the past four years. As the trial got underway in Austin last week, very few women came through the doors.

“You don’t see the phone ringing off the hook,” Martinez said.

Nearly 2,200 abortions were performed in El Paso in 2011 — about 3.1 percent of all abortions in Texas that year. State attorneys pointed that out in court while making the case that nearly 9 of every 10 women in Texas will still live within 150 miles of an abortion provider.

Texas is proposing that New Mexico is an option for El Paso women, even after a federal judge in Mississippi ruled last month that a state can’t shift obligations on constitutional rights — in this case, abortion access — to its neighbors. Texas says its situation isn’t comparable to Mississippi because, unlike there, the law wouldn’t remove all abortion services in the state.

“At most, some patients may choose to travel out of state for convenience,” the state wrote in court documents.

Laster said closing her clinic, Reproductive Services El Paso, removed the city’s only abortion provider that gave women financial assistance for a procedure that costs around $530. Abortion providers say if they’re lucky, the border women choose to cross will be into New Mexico — and not into Mexico to buy drugs that allow them to undergo dangerous self-abortions.

“It’s not as easy as the Legislature makes it look,” Laster said.

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