Mexico

Arizona Women Eye Mexico for Abortions, Amid Conflicting Advice

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Mexico fought hard to legalize abortion. Now it's American women seeking access to safe, legal abortions south of the border.

Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, a Democratic state senator from Tucson, was in Los Angeles late last month cheering on her 15-year-old daughter at a volleyball match when she was struck with a sudden realization.

“People in this country have no idea what’s coming their way,” she thought to herself solemnly, gazing across the gymnasium packed with teenage girls.


She knew what loomed a few short weeks away — the U.S. Supreme Court’s long-anticipated decision knocking down a woman’s right to abortion under federal law.


Earlier that day, Stahl Hamilton had returned from a tour of reproductive health care clinics in several different regions of Mexico. She and other state legislators were impressed by efforts to expand abortion access south of the border.


Watching her high school daughter from the bleachers, she quietly promised her, “If you ever choose to have an abortion, I know exactly where I’m going to take you.”


Mexico.


Decades ago, with the help of activists, Mexican women were ushered into the United States to terminate their pregnancies at American clinics. Since last week’s upheaval of the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision, it’s now American women seeking access to safe, legal abortions in Mexico.


In a twist, a developing country with the second-largest Catholic population in the world has become a haven for women in need of termination services.


“A lot of clinics in Mexico are leading the way,” Stahl Hamilton told Phoenix New Times on Monday. “The clinics we visited were equal to a health care clinic here in Tucson.”


The first-term lawmaker was dazzled by all that Mexico had to offer: providers handing out $600 abortion pills for free in Mexico City, ubiquitous educational signage about birth control and HIV prevention, a waiting room full of American patients at another clinic in Monterrey.


That clinic already has had an increase from two per year to 20 per month in American patients since September 2021. That's when both the Texas Heartbeat Act took effect and the Mexican Supreme Court unanimously ruled that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional. However, like in the United States, federal law does not automatically supersede state law in Mexico.


As a result, safe, legal abortions are only available in Mexico City and nine of the country’s 32 states. Arizona borders three Mexican states, but of those, abortion remains legal in only one — Baja California.


Nevertheless, Americans are pouring over the border in the pursuit of reproductive rights, Stahl Hamilton discovered during her recent tour.


For her, the biggest departure from American norms came at a clinic in Guadalajara, the capital city of Jalisco. In Jalisco, abortion remains illegal except under extreme circumstances, including rape.


“I asked them, ‘How do you know if it was rape?’” she recalled with some emotion. “They said, ‘We simply believe her.’”

"Love is the law." - Arizona Senator Stephanie Stahl Hamilton

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The Mexican government is steeling itself for an influx of American patients.


"It's truly regressive, sad, and outrageous that in a country where these rights had been recognized they are going backward,” Mexico City's health secretary, Oliva Lopez Arellano, said in a June 25 statement. “We'll be ready to help.”


Mexico City has the capacity for around 25,000 legal terminations a year, according to Lopez Arellano. Right now, it’s only processing half of that.


One in 10 of the 247,000 abortions performed in the city since the operation was decriminalized in 2007 have been for migrants heading to the U.S., Lopez Arellano added.


In Arizona, the legal status of abortions is now murky.


Before Roe, a law criminalizing all abortions did exist — but it was codified in 1864, long before Arizona was even a state. That old law “is not a light switch that magically gets turned back on,” said Dr. Greg Marchand, a board-certified obstetrics and gynecologic physician who founded the Marchand Institute for Minimally Invasive Surgery in Mesa.


The old law might be obsolete, but there’s a new one taking its place.


In March, Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.


"In Arizona, we know there is immeasurable value in every life, including preborn life," the governor wrote in a March letter. "I believe it is each state's responsibility to protect them."


The new law goes into effect in September.


It’s not a trigger law, which goes into effect immediately, as in Texas or Utah. But it is “a long trigger,” in the words of Marchand.


That’s not to say the 160-year-old law is enforceable, even though it survives in the state code, as many antiabortion critics have pointed out.


“I think that argument is extremely weak,” Marchand told New Times on Monday. “The penalties associated with that law would have nothing to do with our current legal system.”


Still, it’s enough to upend reproductive health care in Arizona today.


On Saturday, Planned Parenthood Arizona, the largest sexual health organization in the state, nixed all of its scheduled abortions.


“This is part of the antiabortion opposition’s strategy,” Brittany Fonteno, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Arizona, said in a press call. “They want to create this chaos and confusion because then it makes people scared to be able to exercise their fundamental right to abortion, [and] it creates fear for providers to be able to provide this essential health care service.”


One clinic in Tempe canceled more than 70 appointments on Friday. Patients are encouraged to look for care in California, where a woman’s right to get an abortion is protected under state law.


According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, there were 13,273 abortions performed in the Grand Canyon State in 2020.


That number is expected to drop. Drastically.


Arizona's 15-week ban only includes exemptions for medical emergencies when continuing with the pregnancy would "create serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function" for the mother.


For doctors like Marchand, that language can sometimes be too vague to decipher.


But unlike Stahl Hamilton, he advises his patients to avoid seeking care in Mexico.


“I love Mexico, but Mexico is a developing nation that has serious problems with its health care system,” Marchand said.


The only exceptions are elective plastic and weight-loss surgeries, offered cheaply by American doctors who set up practices in Mexico and are unaffiliated with the Mexican health care system, Marchand said.


“Nobody should reasonably go to Mexico for medical care, especially an abortion,” he said. “I’d be very worried about somebody undergoing procedures there.”


In March, a Texas grand jury indicted 26-year-old Lizelle Herrera for murder after a self-induced abortion on January 7. Herrera bought abortion pills in Mexico that were ineffective but gave the baby defects in the womb that led to its death shortly after birth.


Following widespread protests, the charges were dropped.


Having witnessed Mexican abortion clinics firsthand, Stahl Hamilton sees this case as an outlier.


As an ordained Presbyterian minister, she’s familiar with all the antiabortion tropes. And as a mother who has miscarried in the past, she knows plenty about reproductive care in the U.S.


“Love is the law,” she said. “In the United States, they often don’t give two shits about people. In Mexico, they're compassionate.”


Arizona’s abortion ban is anticipated with a mixture of excitement and dread.


According to a June 7 terrorism advisory from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the continued proliferation of false and misleading narratives regarding the repeal of Roe could lead to violence.


“It’s unbelievable how much misinformation about this exists on social media,” Marchand said. “I have never seen this level of misinformation in my life.”


One viral tweet that amassed nearly 300,000 likes makes the claim that, “The treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is abortion.”

“That’s a flat-out lie,” said Marchand, the gynecological surgeon. “Roe v. Wade could never apply to an ectopic pregnancy.”

An ectopic pregnancy is one where a fertilized egg develops outside the uterus.


Dabbling in the misinformation is Blake Masters, a Tucson-based venture capitalist running for a seat in the U.S. Senate.


Referring to a 1965 landmark decision decriminalizing the use of contraceptives, Masters said the Supreme Court justices “wholesale made up a constitutional right to achieve a political outcome,” a debunked myth.

If elected, he's gunning for a federal ban on abortions everywhere. Even though only 13 percent of his own constituents in Arizona would support that action, according to a May survey.


"Blake Masters' support of a federal abortion ban with no exceptions and the imprisonment of abortion providers is extreme, dangerous, and wildly unpopular," Hannah Goss, a spokesperson for the Arizona Democratic Party, told New Times. "Not only is Masters hypocritical for backing national mandates on a woman's right to make her own health care decisions, but his views on the issue do not represent Arizona's values of freedom and choice."

Masters markets himself as a hero who will squash big government overreach in Arizona. In reality, this federal ban is at the cornerstone of his campaign. And he’s eyeing other overarching bans, too.


“The 14th Amendment says you have the right to life, liberty, and property,” Masters said in a Monday email to New Times. “You can’t deprive someone of that without due process. Hard to imagine a bigger deprivation of due process than killing a small child before they have a chance to take their first breath. So I think you do need a federal personhood law.”