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What reopening a Texas abortion clinic meant to one woman

The reopening of the last abortion clinic in Texas' Rio Grande Valley has already made a difference in one woman's life.
An exam room at the Whole Women's Health Clinic in McAllen, Texas, March 4, 2014.
An exam room at the Whole Women's Health Clinic in McAllen, Texas, March 4, 2014.

McAllen, Texas – Five weeks pregnant and on her way to the clinic in Texas's vast Rio Grande Valley, A. asked her boyfriend to pull over during the hour-long drive so she could vomit. She cried when she saw the protesters outside the squat, tan building that is home to Whole Woman’s Health. She didn’t want to walk past them for what turned out to be the first day in a year that the clinic would be providing abortions. So she called the clinic before coming in, and a young woman in an orange "Stand with Texas" shirt came to help her through.

By the time A. spoke to msnbc, on the condition of anonymity as she waited for her appointment, her mood had improved. A 20-year-old college student wearing braces and a pink rayon blouse, she curled up with her legs under her in the waiting room, leaning on her boyfriend’s shoulder and giggling over a shared whisper.

A. only vaguely knew of the state law that had closed the clinic and threatened to do again next week, pending an appeals court ruling. A reporter explained: Texas lawmakers had required doctors to get admitting privileges at local hospitals, only no hospital would grant them. 

“How sad,” A. said, in Spanish, repeating it: “How sad, that’s the truth. They have no idea what it’s like to be in this situation.”

Around them in the waiting room, other young women, friends as of that morning, huddled in pairs under the purple blankets the clinic had handed out as a defense against the chilly blast of air conditioning. Eighteen women would be seen that day at the newly reopened clinic. 

A. had an idea of how lucky she had been with timing, if not in other ways.

The birth control pills she and her boyfriend had bought at a pharmacy in Mexico — minutes from McAllen, where much of A.’s family lives — hadn’t worked.

A. is uninsured in a state that has refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and she has never had sex education. The morning after pill had no effect. And A. says she doesn't want kids — not now, she said in Spanish, or ever.

A. also knew women bought ulcer medication at Mexican pharmacies to induce miscarriage. “I was never going to take it,” she said. “I was afraid, because I heard that many women had died taking it.”

The Rio Grande Valley once had two legal abortion clinics, but Texas’s far reaching anti-abortion bill had forced both to close. Without those two locations, the nearest clinic was in 250 miles away in San Antonio —a fact A. and her boyfriend knew well because they had planned to travel there that week -- a nearly $2,000 trip they couldn’t afford and had planned to put on credit cards. They decided they wanted to fly back and forth in one day so as to miss less class time, because A. dreams of being a professor.

A friend was going to drive from Austin to give them a ride to the clinic. It hurt A. that she couldn’t tell family members in San Antonio, whom she rarely gets to see, that she would be there, because the couple had decided to keep the pregnancy a secret.

Then the clinic called her. Did she want an appointment closer to home? 

A week earlier, a district court judge had said that the rights of the women in rural parts of Texas, including the Rio Grande Valley where A. lives, had been violated by the law that closed the clinics. An appeals court is likely to overturn that decision within a week or so, but for now, the lawmakers had not gotten their way — and A. was glad.

“The truth is, I have no words for them,” A. said of the legislators. “They did an injustice to me.”

Texas legislators and Governor Rick Perry have claimed that they seek to protect women's health through both the admitting privileges law and one that threatens to close even more clinics by mandating that abortions only be provided in hospital-like ambulatory surgical centers.

But at the trial earlier this month over the law, an attorney for Whole Woman’s Health and several other clinics pointed out that “over the past decade, the clinics collectively performed over 30,000 abortion procedures. During that time only two patients out of that 30,000 had to be transferred from one of the clinics to a hospital.” In Texas, the mortality rate from a woman carrying a pregnancy to term is 100 times that of the mortality rate from abortion, a wider disparity than the national average, the lawyer argued.

A. said she knew what it was like in Mexico, where abortion is illegal. “There are illegal clinics that do it. Many women die because they don’t have all of the apparatuses,” or proper sterilization, she said. “That’s why I was afraid, that my life might be in danger.” But then she read online about exactly what a surgical abortion would entail. She even read reviews of Whole Woman’s Health from when it had been open previously. “They said the people here were very nice,” A. recalled. That made her feel better.

She continued: “I’m old enough to decide for myself. This is my body. This is my life.” She said it again: “How sad.”