The Texas Ban and the Migration Injustice

The most recent Texas abortion ban drives home the fact that abortion is a migration issue.

Outside the Supreme Court after the decision on Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a June 2016 Texas abortion case. (Adam Fagen / Flickr)

An El Paso, Texas, resident I’ll call “Maria” told me her abortion story while convalescing under white blankets in the recovery room of Southwestern Women’s Options, an abortion clinic in Albuquerque. I had been eager to interview her for my research on “abortion migration” given the nature of her border-crossing journey to abortion care.

A working-class mother of two young children, Maria first tried to terminate her pregnancy in her native Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where abortion is illegal in almost all cases. Her Juárez-based doctor nevertheless gave her misoprostol—an ulcer medication that is available over-the counter in Mexico, and that can also help pregnant people terminate pregnancies—so she could terminate her abortion at home. María took the pills and bled considerably. She assumed that her abortion was complete.

Over a month later, Maria realized that she was still pregnant; the miso hadn’t worked. Eager to complete this tough chapter of her life, Maria visited Hill Top Women’s Reproductive Clinic in El Paso. By now, she was in her second trimester of pregnancy, and the Hill Top staff told her they could not legally give her an abortion at this stage. Maria then crossed the Texas–New Mexico border to reach Albuquerque, New Mexico—which entailed a costlier abortion, an extremely long drive, increased emotional hardship and complex child care coordination with family and friends. Reflecting on all this, Maria told me that all the border-crossing made her feel that God himself was trying to stop her from seeking abortion care.

All the border-crossing made her feel that God himself was trying to stop her from seeking abortion care.

This conversation didn’t happen in September 2021, following the recent Texas abortion law that effectively bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy (or less) by enabling private citizens to sue anyone who “aids and abets” people seeking abortion care. It was in the summer of 2017, when I started researching the phenomenon I call “abortion migration,” in which pregnant people travel long distances and cross internal and national borders to access abortion care. While the news out of Texas is extraordinarily alarming, both Texas women and pregnant people across the globe have long been traveling to places like Albuquerque to legally terminate pregnancies.

Indeed, the Guttmacher Institute reported that in 2014, 90 percent of U.S. counties lacked abortion clinics. They later reported that 57 percent of reproductively-aged women in the U.S. live in states that are openly “hostile” to abortion care. In 2017, it was reported that nearly half of the world’s women live in countries where abortion is either illegal in all cases, or only legal when it threatens the pregnant person’s life.

And, of course, things were already very bad for Texas women before the September 2021 ban; when the Texas legislature passed H.B. 2 in 2013, which chipped away abortion access in flagrant ways, researchers at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine reported a 747 percent proportional increase in Texas women from Texas seeking abortions in New Mexico.

Still, the most recent Texas abortion ban drives home the fact that abortion is a migration issue—and it is in our interest to consider the implications of this. Migration is not limited to national borders: State borders like the Texas–New Mexico border, and other internal barriers to movement, are just as relevant to migration and reproductive justice as, say, that familiar obsession: the U.S.–Mexico border.  

Indeed, internal borders and barriers can also produce migration injustice, which migration ethicists often define in terms of state-sanctioned migration barriers that undermine and stigmatize oppressed social groups. Just as the U.S.–Mexico border wall and its associated rhetoric harm the social standing of Latin Americans and their descendants in the U.S., so do state-level abortion bans forcing pregnant people to cross internal borders to seek abortion bans “under the cover of night.”

Migration scholars have also argued that in important respects, borders exist “everywhere”—well beyond the feeble limits of state territories. We encounter them in the police forces doing the work of immigration enforcement, in ever-present surveillance technology, and even in the efforts of non-state actors to enforce migration practices, such as the private citizens who can and will sue those aid Texas women seeking abortion care.

Even outside of the abortion context, women and girls are more likely to migrate internally.

It is worth noting that even outside of the abortion context, women and girls are more likely to migrate internally, underscoring the gender-based importance of this broadened analysis. In many respects, pregnant people and migrant children are the face of social “illegalization” in the migratory context—from the visibly pregnant, Mexican visa-holder who is unduly harassed by immigration enforcement while trying to legally the cross the border, to the Latin American children casually derided as “anchor babies,” to the pregnant person who seeks an illegal abortion in the United States.

We should use Texas’s most recent, morally repugnant abortion ban to reorient our thinking along these lines. We can put this thinking into practice by supporting organizations that actively support abortion migrants—like the El Paso-based West Fund that supports “abortion without borders,” the National Network of Abortion FundsThe Mariposa Fund, which provides support to undocumented people seeking abortion care, and the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which gives various forms of logistical and financial aid to people crossing borders and traveling to Albuquerque for abortion care.

Most importantly, we need to understand that so many of us—including U.S. citizens and legal residents—are victimized by migration injustice, as various forms of state and state-sanctioned power combine to coerce our movement in ways that threaten our dignity and equal standing. If abortion-seekers are migrants, then the U.S. really is a nation of migrants.

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Amy Reed-Sandoval is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of Socially Undocumented: Identity and Immigration Justice (Oxford University Press, 2020). She is currently completing a book entitled Intimate Borders: Feminism at the Margins of the State. Her writing has previously appeared in venues such as LA Times en Español, Ms. magazine, BBC News Online, The Guardian, Salon and Psyche.