Pills from Guanajuato
The American Supreme Court wants to get rid of the right to an abortion. American
women now look for help in Mexico.
Written by Samiha Shafy and Amrai Coen, Wichita/Austin/Guanajuato, translated by @Grzmot
Updated on 2022-06-18, 16:02
Mark Gietzen was convinced, he wouldn't live to see this triumph. In his eyes, the USA is currently turning away from decades of atrocity to something good, and he says that he helped in a not insignificant way. Since twenty years he has been protesting on the streets because of it. He stands at the edge of a highway in Wichita, Kansas, in front of a simple building, that looks like a window-less warehouse from the outside. "Trust Women" is written on the gray-beige facade. On the inside is one of the last abortion clinics in the state.
"Let us say our morning prayer," Mark Gietzen says to the two older men next to him, that introduced themselves as Larry and Mike. Gietzen, sixty-eight years old, is the leader of the trio. He looks, like he just came from a film shoot: Cheek-beard, pilot glasses and a baseball cap with "U.S. Marine Veteran" written on it. The three are retired, but they still have work to do: Every day from 08:00 to 17:00 they stand in front of the clinic door, stopping cars, talking to people, handing out flyers. Next to them, a large truck, with gigantic images of dead infants, which Gietzen had specially printed. They want to stop pregnant women from going into the clinic. In his own count, Gietzen has "saved 584 lives of babys".
The three men form a cirlce for the prayer: "Dear God, please help us in stopping the violent murders through abortion against the youngest members of our human family... Amen."
Gietzen and his friends call themselves "Pro-Life". They want to close the clinic down, and even better, close all other clinics in the USA. According to the wishes of the Pro-Life movement, women should be forced under all circumstances to deliver the baby - even when the pregnancy is unwanted or the result of rape.
These days, the American anti-abortionists are as close to their target as they haven't been in five decades. "Roe v. Wade", the verdict of the Supreme Court of the USA, that guarantees the woman's right to decide about her own abortion, will most likely be annulled this month - by the same Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court today is as polarized and estranged as the rest of the country. But unlike the rest of the USA, the fight between the liberals and right-wingers is decided there: Because Donald Trump was able to fill three seats in his four-year presidency, the court has moved to the extreme right. Of nine judges, six are conservatives.
The court now supports a similar position as the Pro-Life movement. Even when surveys have shown since years, that about two thirds of Americans support Roe v. Wade. The anti-abortionists have, united with the Christian Right, demonstrated, how you can push through a minority position: With loud, well organized protests, the perserverance of activists like Mark Gietzen and a fine sense for pushing the borders of the doable and sayable again and again.
If Roe v. Wade falls, every state can decide for itself, how it's abortion laws will look. Some of them have already tightened their abortion laws and are waiting to make them completely or nearly illegal. In half of the fifty US states, especially in the conservative middle and south women would lose the access to safe and legal abortions permanently. The law would hit poor people the hardest, as they couldn't afford to travel to a liberal state to have an abortion. They'd be left with three options: Deliver the fetus, illegally and potentially under threat to their life, abort - or look for help in Mexico. Mexico, the supposedly backwards, catholic neighbour, where women were until recently, locked up after miscarriages under suspicion of having had an illegal abortion.
For the abortion doctors it's dangerous
It is as if the American half of the world had turned on it's head. Because Mexico and other latin American countries have, in a surprising move, legalized abortion.
While Mark Gietzen and his friends protest in front of the clinic in Wichita, the phone on the inside rings constantly. "Trust-Women clinic, I am Jessica, how can I help you?" A crying woman is on the phone, that doesn't have a possibility of abortion her state of Texas, and now wants to travel to Kansas, hundreds of kilometers away from her home. "We are sadly booked fully for the next three weeks," Jessica says.
Since it's clear that the Supreme Court is going to eliminate Roe v. Wade, thousands of women call on some days. 30 to 35 abortions the clinic can do in one day. "When I tell women, that we don't have space, I can hear the panic in their voices. Some are sad, some are angry, some beg me desperately", says the woman at the reception. "Recently a woman offered me 5000 dollars. But I sadly can't do anything."
Who wants to get inside the clinic, has to go through a security gate, past a guard, that is looking at multiple cameras on his screen. That the clinic is guarded like a max security prison, stems from history. In the 1970s a doctor called George Tiller took over the clinic. "Tiller, the Baby Killer!", protesters called him at the entrance. They fought Roe v. Wade and later the following verdict of the Supreme Court, that legalize abortions, until the fetus is able to live outside of the womb. The Pro-Choice movement celebrated those verdicts as the freeing of women. The Pro-Life movement mobilized massively.
1986 a bomb explodes in the clinic in Wichita. Head physician George Tiller continues. 1993 a woman shoots him in both arms in front of the clinic. Tiller continues. On Whit Sunday 2009 George Tiller visits his church. An anti-abortionist shoots him in the head from close proximity. The doctor died. For a short time, the clinic was closed - and then continued.
A visit in the clinic is only possible on the few days, where there are no patients - to protect the women. What remains of them, are handwritten notes, that they put on a pinboard in the waiting room to support each other. "Don't be embarassed that you are here." - "Only you know, what the best is for you and your life." On the wall is also a poster with different contraception methods, on the small table condoms and a magazine with the title "Family planning".
There are multiple ultrasound rooms, where it is determined far the pregnancy has progressed. In the first eleven weeks the patient can abort with a combination of two medications, After eleven weeks the fetus has to be removed operatively, for which there are two surgery rooms available.
The head physician of the clinic is called Christina Bourne and is 36 years old. She speaks with a deep, calm voice and a very earnest tone. One her lower arm she has a tattoo of a papaya, because while studying she practiced with the fruit on how to remove a fetus from the womb. Bourne is the only doctor in the clinic that also lives in Kansas. The others come every few months by plane, like doctors flying into a crisis area. Almost all abortion clinics in the USA are relying on these mobile doctors. They often feel like they couldn't live where htey work. They know what happened to George Tiller.
Christina Bourne is not intimidated. Every day, she passes the men with the large images of dead infants, that scream after her how she'll burn in hell.
By now, some Pro-Choice activists are considering to adopt the drastic methods of the opposition. No one is supporting militarisation, but there are discussions of playing videos of birthing women, who's life is threatened by the birth, in court rooms. Or printing photos of beds covered in blood or birth injuries like a torn Perineum on posters.
The head physician meets the polemic clear and openly. She says, that she also had an abortion. "I was just done with college, I felt too young, now education, no work. To become pregnant in the wrong moment can destroy your life and future." Some of the women, that come to her today, are in a similar situation. Many of them already have one or two children and can't support another. Some are pregnant after surviving a rape. Some have to abort due to medical reasons. The mortality rate of mothers in the US is the highest among all industrial nations. And of course, also religious and conservative women appear in the clinic, says Bourne, in their environment, abortion is a sin.
"As a doctor I'd like to practice medicine and not politics", Bourne says. Should she lose her job, because the clinic in Kansas has to close, she'll continue either way - Just in a different state.
Texas wants to punish abortion doctors with life in prison
If Joe Pojman had his way, Christina Boune would not be a physician anymore, she'd be in prison. He greets visitors in his office in Austin, Texas, 900 kilometres away from the clinic in Wichita. Pojman is 63, he wears suit and tie, a man with grey hair and a full beard, who chooses his words carefully and speaks eloquently. His appearance is so gentle, you don't even notice in the first moments, how radical his words are. He used to work as an engineer at NASA, until he felt like God was calling him to a different purpose. 34 years ago he founded the organization Alliance for Life.
Joe Pojman has the same goal as Mark Gietzen, the praying man in front of the clinic in Kansas, but Pojman's strategy is much stealthier, and much more efficient. In front of him on his desk is a law, that he designed. The Governor of Texas has already signed it. When Roe v. Wade falls, the law goes into effect 30 days later in Texas. It has the number 1280 and the title "Human life rotection law" In the text: "A person, that violates the ban on abortion, is committing a crime." A doctor like Christina Bourne would be accused of manslaughter in Texas and punished with life in prison, in addition to a fine of "at least $ 100,000 for every violation". And she'd lose her medical license.
Are there exceptions? "Yes", says Joe Pojman. "When the life of the mother is in danger because of the pregnancy." And because of rape or incest? Or when the child cannot live? "No."
In Texas people already live in a world, where Roe v. Wade has practically gone. Last September, when Mexico legalized abortions, Texas activated the so-called Heartbeat law, which bans abortions once the fetus has a detectable heartbeat, approximately after the sixth week. Many women don't even know that they're pregnant at that point.
What such a law can mean in real life, was showcased in April: A 26 year old Texan was arrested and accused of murder, because she allegedly "initiated a abortion by herself". The case was dropped, the woman came free. But defenders of the right to abortion see a dark future in the case, something that could soon be a new reality in the USA.
Joe Pojman himself isn't satisfied with the Heartbeat law. "Life starts at conception", he says. Unlike head physician Christina Bourne he never speak of a fetus, only "the unborn child". The choice of words shows, that behind the debate for an abortion there are complex answers: When does life starts? When does a fetus become a person?
Pojman agrees to a short thought experiment: If he was placed in a burning hospital and could save five embryos in petri dishes, or a newborn child. What would he pick?
Joe Pojmanm says, he can't answer that question. "For me, all human life is equally important - The unborn, newborn, a teenager or an adult." He has heard that recently women started leaving Texas, to get an abortion elsewhere. "It breaks my heart", he says. "My goal is, that no woman starts that journey."
But for now it is not illegal for Texan women to look for help outside of the state. For example in Mexico.
"The Americans are paralyzed by fear"
At first glance, the town of Guanajuato, 2000 meters over the sea, located in the Mexican state of the same name, looks like a magical cliche. At night, Mariachis travel through cozy alleys, by day there's always a bard somewhere singing about love. The colourful houses from colonial times are a world heritage site since 1988. Here, in one of the most conservative regions of Mexico, the women's revolution started.
That is tightly connected to her: Verónica Cruz, 51 years old, 1.60m tall, supplied with a apparently limitless energy. With her organization Las Libres, "The Free", the activist has been fighting since twenty years for women's rights in Mexico - For their right to make their own decisions to better protection from violence at home and sexual crimes. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for women, globally.
But it is also the country where the highest court last September announced the surprising decision to legalize abortions. In a kind of Mexican Roe v. Wade, half a century after the American verdict, that now shouldn't exist anymore. "Once I saw the announcement in TV, I thought: Now I can stop and travel the world." says Cruz. "But then the American women came."
Verónica Cruz sits on a couch in the office of Las Libres. At a conference table three women work on laptops. The head quarters of the organization is a two-story house on a hill, overlooking the city and surrounding mountains. Since autumn Cruz and her colleagues get daily calls from desperate pregnant women from the USA, that want to abort, asking if Las Libres can help them. "The Americans are paralyzed by fear", says Cruz, her look is pityfull and mocking at the same time. In the USA people fear the law, she says, differently than in Mexico, where they are used to fighting back.
Activists organize themselves in Mexico
And it's not without irony: From all the places in the world it's the south, of all the places in the world it's catholic Mexico that now becomes the country of refugee for American women. That Mexico, from which hundreds of thousands leave every year into the north, to find work, chances and a life in dignity in the richest country on earth. That Mexico, where man Americans think of drug cartels first.
What many Americans don't know: In the past few years, a feminist grass roots movement has been building in Mexico and other latin American countries, that are well connected and difficult to ignore. The activists organize mass protests in front of courts and parliaments, they sing, they dance, they fly green colours, the symbol for the "Green Wave", the Latin American women's movement. The right to bodily autonomy is one of their central demands - And they found open ears: Argentinia, Columbia, Uruguay, Cuba and Guyana have softened their abortion laws; Chile could soon be next.
When Verónica Cruz became an activist, a "green wave" didn't exist yet. She grew up as one of eight, went to a monastery school and was taught by nuns, that is it very important to help the weak and poor. For a while, she played with the idea to become a nun: They could travel, see the Vatican! "But my dad said no", she says. "What luck! When I became a feminist, I lost my faith in God." She studied organizational development and political science and decided, that she was going to help the poorer and weaker half of the population: the women.
Her goals were small at first: I wanted to improve the sexual education of teenagers. "Sexuality was an absolute taboo", she remembers. Again and again, very coung girls became pregnant, some of them only eleven or twelve years old and allegedly abused by male members of the family. As rape victims, they could've theoretically aborted in Guanajuato, but in real life they found no help. "And so the parents lived under the same roof with their daugther and their grand child, which at the same was the child of the father", says Cruz. "That for me is unethical, not the abortion."
But with her stance she was alone for a long time. Even her feminist allies avoided talking about abortion for a long time. "I head to remove the stigma from their heads first."
In that time she had always looked towards the USA with admiration, where women could decide themselves, if they wanted a child or not, while in Mexico, hundreds of women were in prison, because they had been accused of abortion after a miscarriage.
The turning point came in 1995, when conservative politican later president Vicente Fox was elected governor of Guanajuato, with the goal of removing the right to an abortion even for rape victims - with the threat of higher sentences. "There was protest", recounts Cruz. Fox pulled back. And Cruz, for the first time, had allies: A growing network of women, that accompanied rape victims to the few gynecologists, that conducted abortions. Soon pregnant women contacted Las Libres, that had not been raped. The activists decided to help them too.
Then Verónica Cruz heard of the pills. "A gynecologist told me of medication, with which you can initiate an abortion", she says. One of these medications - Misprostol - in Mexico legal against stomach and gut aches, you can buy without a doctor's not in the apothecary. the WHO recommends it for abortions until the twelveth week.
"The USA is a country of the insane"
The work of the activists became simpler. They watched, as women took the pills under the guidance of doctors, and they learned everything there was to learn about the pills. "At some point I thought: Now I don't need the doctors anymore", says Cruz.
She estimates, that her network between 2000 and 2021 accompanied about 10,000 women to abortions. They got the pregnant women their pills and supported them when they took it. "El producto" Verónica Cruz calls the result that women then press out under contractions and blood.
She herself could have never imagined to become pregnant, says Cruz. Maybe it has to do with her work, with the limitless tales of male violence and female sorrow. "With 15 I decided to never have children, and every ear I congratulate myself with that decision."
Cruz has been an activist for decades and has never been attacked by fanatical anti-abortionists. "The people here are more respectful than in the USA", she says. "The USA is a country of the insane."
She gets up and fetches a cardboard box from a cupboard. In it are pills, that Las Libres now smuggle into the USA, sometimes in Aspirin packaging, sometimes sown into brightly coloured dolls. Since the end of January the Mexicans have helped over a thousant pregnant women from US states like Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Mississippi and Ohio with the pills. They support them when the women take the pills, over WhatsApp, phone or video-call. If the women want to be supported personally, they are welcome in Mexico. In the city of Moterrey, not far from the US border, allied activists
have opened a house they call "La Abortería".
Cruz knows, that she and her allies will attract the rage of the Pro-Life movement in America. "But we are not going to let fear paralyze us", she says. Additionally, the Americans hopefully won't always rely on the South-North-Help.
She still plans to travel the world, says Verónica Cruz. Probably in five years.