Editor’s note: In the nine months since Roe v. Wade was overturned, New Mexico has emerged as a safe haven for those seeking abortion. This is the second installment in a series about abortion access in the state. The first can be found here and the third can be found here.
Earlier this year an 18-year-old, somewhere in Texas, was raped.
Then she found out she was pregnant.
She was fearful her family would kill her if they found out. She was fearful that the ordeal might mean she would not be able to get married and have children — two things she very much wants in the future.
She managed to find a way to get to New Mexico to have an abortion.
“Her family didn’t know exactly where she was for a couple of days. She was able to get here, get an abortion and go back. But I can only imagine how traumatizing that was for her …” recounted Dr. Amber Truehart, the medical director at the UNM Center for Reproductive Health where the teen was treated. “This was super hard for her. This was not the position she wanted to be in.”
Increasingly, Truehart said, she and her colleagues are encountering patients who are overcoming enormous obstacles in order to get abortions — finding child care, taking time off work and traveling great distances because their own states have banned the procedure or made it very difficult to get.
You can feel the angst and anxiety in the room, she said.
“They found out at 21 weeks that their baby has this genetic anomaly where it can’t live outside of them,” Truehart said. “They really want to be cared for in their state by their doctor and some of those doctors want to care for them and have the skills to do it. They medically could do it — but because they’re in Texas, they can’t take care of their patients.”
The UNM Center for Reproductive Health, an unassuming clinic tucked into the back of an office park down the street from the Albuquerque International Sunport, used to be relatively low volume. So much so that those in an abortion provider fellowship program often had to go somewhere else in their second year to get more experience.
That changed once Texas’ Senate Bill 8 went into effect in September 2021, banning abortion after 6-weeks of pregnancy and then again after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade with its decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case in June 2022.
Now all abortions are banned in Texas except for cases in which the procedure is needed to save a pregnant person’s life or “prevent impairment of major bodily function.” Recently five women filed a lawsuit saying they were denied care even though their lives were in danger.
There are no exceptions for rape or incest and under Senate Bill 8 anyone can sue abortion providers and those who help a patient get an abortion.
That stormy Friday evening in June when supporters of abortion access poured into Albuquerque’s Tiguex Park to protest the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, many expected New Mexico to become a destination for people seeking the procedure.
That has been borne out — there was a 12% increase in abortions in New Mexico from April to August 2022, according to a report for the Society of Family Planning. And that number appears to continue to grow.
The 10 physicians at the UNM center now see three to five times as many patients as they did previously, Truehart said, and 80% are from Texas. UNM would not provide data on how many abortions it did each month.
The three Planned Parenthood clinics in New Mexico also experienced increases — basically doubling the number of abortion patients they see each month from 115 before Senate Bill 8 to 237 now. Roughly two out of five of the patients are from out of state and most of those are from Texas.
One couple who visited an Albuquerque clinic recently — driving for 17 hours — left both of their cellphones at home in Texas because they were fearful their data could be tracked, recalled Adrienne Mansanares, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.
“Patients traveling from Texas feel victimized, they felt stigmatized, they’re fearful. They’re crying. The amount of just — sadness…,” Mansanares said. “There’s a bit of that exhaustion, I think, that comes from being terrorized by the state that you live in. The change of tenor is palpable.”
More providers are coming to the state as well and three clinics have moved from other states to New Mexico — including one that opened just last week.
The clinic — nicknamed “The Pink House” for it’s candy-colored exterior — that was at the center of the Dobbs decision moved to Las Cruces after it had to shut down in Mississippi. It’s now referred to as “Pink House West.”
Abortion opponents energized
As more abortion patients travel to New Mexico, the number of people holding prayer vigils and protests — carrying signs that offer to adopt a baby or quote Bible verses — to try to dissuade people from entering the clinics has grown, too.
Tara Shaver, a self-described “pro-life missionary” who founded Abortion Free New Mexico with her husband, Bud Shaver, said the group used to have about 10 or 15 volunteers. Now, she said, they have about 70 and they have established a program to have people out on the sidewalks more regularly.
“It’s interesting to see how New Mexicans have responded in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned,” Shaver said. “Of course it kind of puts a fire under people to realize that there’s so much more that needs to be done on a daily basis.”
The volunteers pray and hold signs if they want to — the Shavers offer one that simply says “Pregnant? We can help” and provides a phone number.
“We really just care for these women, we believe that every woman deserves to know the truth and deserves to know that there are other options, viable options, to abortion,” Shaver said. “Women should never feel pressured or put in a corner that abortion is their only option.”
She pointed out that the rate of abortions in the state had been low in the years before Roe was overturned. Data provided to the Journal from the state Department of Health shows a steady decrease from 3,761 in 2011 to 2,618 in 2021, the most recent year for which complete data was available.
As Shaver and her volunteers started seeing more people with Texas license plates in the parking lots of Albuquerque clinics, they began reaching out to those who provide resources in that state in order to offer “positive alternatives to what could be a very traumatic abortion experience.”
Shaver touts two success stories: women who had come to New Mexico in October and November and ended up changing their minds, giving birth to a girl and boy this year.
“To see them now holding their babies is just a reward in and of itself,” Shaver said. “We’re just really happy for the moms and proud of them because they have something to show for their unplanned pregnancy, so to speak, and their crisis situation.”
It’s not uncommon for people calling the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice looking for help getting an abortion to be concerned that it’s a trap.
“They’re just not sure they can trust us to be legitimate because we’re a faith-rooted organization and there’s been so much distrust and trauma around this created by the misuse and abuse of religion,” said Joan Lamunyon Sanford, the organization’s executive director. “It’s not unusual for people to say ‘I wasn’t sure I could trust you, but I really didn’t have any other choice.'”
Lamunyon Sanford was raised Methodist and her mother was one of the first nurses hired at Planned Parenthood when it opened in Albuquerque in the late 1960s. When she was in her 20s she had an abortion with the support of her parents and the church.
“I sometimes say I had the abortion that, you know, should be the norm,” she said.
Lamunyon Sanford — now a grandmother — said her religious faith tells her to care for one another and to provide hospitality and compassion and that’s why she works to preserve access to abortion.
“If (our clients) are people of faith they have had a conversation with however they understand and experience the divine presence in their lives,” Lamunyon Sanford said. “They have made a decision according to their faith and values. … We have no place in that conversation. Our job is to make sure that what they need happens and however we can help that happen, we have to do it.”
New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice operates one of a handful of abortion funds in the state. Others include Indigenous Women Rising and the Mariposa Fund, which focuses on undocumented people. Planned Parenthood also offers to pay for a patient’s cost of care as well as a hotel room, gas or meal where needed.
In 2021, the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice served 384 people — up from previous years where the numbers hovered a little over 200. In 2022, they served 1,125.
In addition to offering transportation to appointments, hotel accommodations and meals, the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice also funds a travel program where a group of about 10 meet up with a reverend in the Dallas airport to fly into Albuquerque all together. After the procedure the patients visit the office where they can have lunch and rest on cots or couches in a homey living room setting.
“They fly them out here for an expedited appointment for anyone under 11 weeks,” said Brittany Defeo, the program director for New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. “They fly in the morning and they go directly to get the procedures done. … We’ve worked with the clinic to be able to expedite care so that they’re not here for more than a day.”
After Roe v. Wade was overturned, the Indigenous Women Rising fund implemented a budget of $20,000 a month to give out to those seeking abortions. This year it raised that to $40,000 since many of their clients needed help paying for travel, hotels, flights and more.
It also helps coordinate appointments all across the country in order to help overcome barriers that Indigenous people may face.
“When folks are traveling or going to clinics they may not accept the tribal identification that our clients have and so we’ll have to get on the phone and let them know that ‘yes, it’s a valid, U.S. federally exempted identification,'” said Jonnette Paddy, the abortion fund director. “We do serve quite a few folks who live on reservations.”
While other patients could take a Lyft or Uber to the airport or to an appointment, some reservations are so remote that’s not an option for Indigenous patients, she added.
New clinics moving in
For Truehart, the doctor from the UNM Center for Reproductive Health, abortion care is the reason she got into medicine.
When she was 16 years old, living on a farm down a dirt road “in the middle of nowhere” in upstate New York, her 15-year-old sister got pregnant and needed an abortion. The sisters didn’t want to tell their parents and Truehart, who had just gotten her driver’s license, drove them the hour and a half — “but it felt like seven hours” — to Albany.
“It was the first time I had ever driven on a highway,” Truehart said. “We held hands the entire time. That entire experience — and the fact that we had to go so far away to get something that I thought was basic health care — I was like, ‘I’m going to be a doctor, and I’m going to fix it.'”
More than two decades later, after her daughter graduated from high school in Chicago, Truehart, her husband and teenage son looked around for somewhere to relocate. They considered North Carolina — where they already owned a house — but ended up choosing New Mexico because of the political climate around abortion access.
She started her job in August 2021, three weeks before Senate Bill 8 went into effect in Texas.
“That was the thing about Roe v. Wade — I think a lot of other places got their peak after that,” Truehart said. “We had already been maintaining that for about a year when that happened, to the point where we were trying to hire more staff, find more space, do all of these things to be able to increase further.”
Sometimes patients have to schedule an appointment three weeks out, which could mean having to opt for a more complicated procedure or not being able to choose a medication abortion. Other times it’s only about a week.
The center tends to specialize in cases that are more complicated, Truehart said, and so it has been seeing more patients who are more than 20 weeks pregnant, but under the cutoff of 24 weeks when the fetus is considered viable.
“Pregnancy is one of the things that’s keeping somebody from what the next step in their life was going to be — like going to college or having a specific relationship,” Truehart said. “I want women to be able to meet the goals that they had in their head for themselves, those big dreams. And so sometimes abortion is the way that they do that.”
New Mexico has nine clinics throughout Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Santa Teresa. Six of them offer procedural abortions — the only option for those over 11 weeks pregnant.
The newest — Whole Woman’s Health of New Mexico — had been operating in Texas, where it provided more than 10,000 abortions annually before the ban went into effect, said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the founder, president and CEO.
Hagstrom Miller said the Albuquerque facility currently has five providers and they chose the location because it’s easier for staff, doctors and patients to blend in and avoid “surveillance and targeting by anti-abortion extremists” in a larger city.
“Local reproductive rights and justice folks encouraged us to pick Albuquerque because there is more local support and a well-organized and effective reproductive health, rights and justice coalition,” Hagstrom Miller said in a statement.
Although more providers have been moving to New Mexico, Mansanares, from Planned Parenthood, said there will never be enough.
“When people don’t want to be forced to give birth, they will do anything …,” Mansanares said. “People will always need to access abortion care, for whatever reason, and these laws don’t do anything about that. They don’t prevent it. They just create more and more and more and more burdens.”
She said she doesn’t think New Mexico had the reproductive health care infrastructure to take care of its own patients, let alone many coming from Texas and other states.
“What that just means is that patients seeking that care have to wait or they’re forced to give birth — and that’s what’s happening,” Mansanares said. “Or they’re forced to take other kinds of actions that are not clinically healthy.”