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New Mexico Abortion Providers See Spike in Texas Patients

Nicole Knight

Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico have successfully beaten back anti-choice measures. But across its eastern border is a state with some of the nation's most onerous abortion access laws: Texas.

In a busy week, Brittany Defeo fields as many as a dozen calls from people traveling to New Mexico seeking abortion care.

Defeo, a program manager with the aid group New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, said in an interview with Rewire that the callers ask for many types of assistance during their brief stays in the state. Sometimes it’s a ride from the bus stop, or a lift from the airport, or a place to stay the night.

The number of patients from other states seeking abortion care in New Mexico has doubled in recent years. About 20 percent of the roughly 4,500 abortions performed there in 2014 involved out-of-state patients, according to state health department data reported by the Albuquerque Journal.

Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico have successfully beaten back anti-choice measures. But across its eastern border is a state with some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion access laws: Texas.

When Defeo picks up the phone, there’s a good chance that the pregnant person on the other end is a Texan.

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“So far this year, one-third are from Texas,” Defeo said of the callers who ask for the coalition’s assistance.

Defeo said the out-of-state patients arrive after flying, boarding a Greyhound bus, or driving solo. They travel hundreds—or thousands—of miles, coming from as far away as Maine and Oregon.

“They’re ages 18 to 40. It’s all walks of life,” Defeo told Rewire.

The coalition has a couple dozen volunteers who ferry the patients to appointments. Some volunteers offer up the hospitality of their own homes, and hotel discounts are available. Patients are greeted with unconditional support, said Joan Lamunyon Sanford, the coalition’s executive director.

New Mexico has four abortion clinics. Three are in Albuquerque, which is where most of the coalition’s volunteers are located. One is in Las Cruces, about a 45-minute drive from El Paso.

Abortion services are available in New Mexico in all trimesters of pregnancy. Republican legislators in Texas, on the other hand, have outlawed abortion care beyond 20 weeks.

The unconstitutional 20-week ban is one of many policies that have kneecapped abortion access throughout Texas. The state’s onerous clinic shutdown law, HB 2, requires Texas doctors who perform abortions to maintain admitting privileges at a nearby hospitals, and mandates that abortion facilities must be outfitted like mini-hospitals. In 2014, the first full year after HB 2 was enacted, the state’s rate of legal abortions fell 14 percent, as the Dallas Morning News recently reported.

Since July 2013, when then-Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed HB 2 into law, 22 of the state’s 41 abortion clinics have stopped offering the procedure, according to Reuters.

Texas women now must drive four times farther for abortion services and often wait three times longer for appointments, researchers at the Texas Policy Evaluation Project found in a series of recent studies. Abortion care in the sprawling state is now concentrated in cities, with the Houston-Beaumont area accounting for more than one-third of abortions performed between November 2013 and April 2014.

The number of Texas patients seeking abortion services in New Mexico has skyrocketed. In the first 11 months of 2015, the National Abortion Federation (NAF) hotline referred 209 Texas patients to New Mexico, up from a mere 21 in all of 2013, said Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of NAF.

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide in the coming months whether HB 2 imposes an undue burden on the state’s pregnant people. During oral arguments this month, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that Texas, which has argued that its harsh restrictions safeguard pregnant people’s health, seemed to have no problem with pregnant people seeking the procedure in New Mexico, where abortion care is easier to come by.

“It’s not just Texas and New Mexico where women travel out of state,” Saporta told Rewire.

In fact, Kansas is the leader nationwide in out-of-state abortions among those states from which the Kaiser Family Foundation could procure data. Fifty-one percent of abortions in Kansas were obtained by patients coming from other states in 2012. The data, however, predates a flood of Republican-led state-level restrictions enacted in recent years.

As the number of state-level restrictions grows,  Saporta said, “it may be easier and quicker for [pregnant people] to go out of state.”

Saporta offered the example of a Missouri patient who lives far from the St. Louis area, where abortion services are available. That individual, she said, may find it easier to cross into neighboring Iowa or Kansas.

But geography isn’t always the reason. Saporta said that barriers to care play a growing role for pregnant people.

“Maybe they want to have a medication abortion and the state they’re in requires multiple visits,” Saporta said. “Where is it most feasible to obtain care? It’s not always the state they live in due to onerous restrictions that have nothing to do with safety.”

Restrictions force patients to wait longer, travel farther, spend more, or resort to at-home attempts to end pregnancy. Facilities also must cope.

Saporta said one Albuquerque provider has seen its number of Texas patients more than triple, going from 19 Texas patients in the first quarter of 2012 to 67 patients in the first quarter of 2015.

Defeo recalled a Texas woman who called the aid group asking for help. Already a mother of two, the woman was carrying a fetus that had been diagnosed with anomalies. She was just days past the 20-week mark, meaning the procedure was illegal in Texas.

Defeo said the woman first made the more than 1,000-mile drive to a Georgia facility, discovering upon arrival that a new abortion restriction had gone into effect the day of her appointment.

“The day she got there, the new law went in place and they had to turn her away,” Defeo said.

The woman was finally able to receive abortion care in New Mexico.

That might not always be the case, advocates said. An offshoot of the radical anti-choice group Operation Rescue is targeting New Mexico providers. The anti-choice organization Americans United For Life rated the state the tenth-worst on its 2015 “Life List.” And state Democrats managed to narrowly defeat a series of abortion restrictions this legislative session, but more are likely to come.

Saporta said Texas is shifting its constitutional responsibilities to other states, while ignoring the damaging effects on those who are most vulnerable.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether this restrictive landscape is an enduring reality.

“The consequences for women are huge,” Saporta said.

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