Abortion fund in the Rio Grande Valley reflects on 40 years after Rosie Jimenez

The coincidence was unnerving. On Oct. 3, Sofia Peña received a call from a woman who needed assistance getting care for complications she was experiencing after getting an abortion.

Peña, board member and voicemail coordinator of the Frontera Fund, described the experience of a recent caller: The woman, who was from a region outside of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, had previously contacted the non-profit when she needed financial assistance to receive an abortion at Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen. Now, the caller had to utilize the abortion fund a second time to afford another trip with her family to the Rio Grande Valley because the clinic and hospitals in her hometown were refusing to help when she was experiencing complications after her procedure.

“They had gone into a hospital and into a clinic in their hometown. In both places, when they explained what was happening, they were treated very badly. The way that they described it is that they were getting dirty looks. They were getting neglected in the facilities.”

Pro-abortion community members outside of Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen | South Texans for Reproductive Justice Facebook

Peña knew that complications can sometimes happen after an abortion, but what surprised Peña was that the day the woman called also marked 40 years since the death of Rosie Jimenez.  Jimenez, a woman from McAllen, was the first victim of the Hyde Amendment, a legal provision passed by U.S. Congress in 1976 that banned federal funding for abortions.

In 1977, Jimenez went to McAllen General Hospital with an infection caused by a back-alley abortion, which she had to seek out because she could not afford to get one from a licensed-doctor under Medicaid. The hospital was unable to save the single-mother and future-teacher.

Because the call came in on the anniversary of Rosie Jimenez’ death and the caller was being turned away for seeking help for complications stemming from an abortion, the occurrence seemed to be particularly disturbing to the Frontera Fund coordinator.

“I couldn’t believe that on the day of Rosie’s death, I was getting a call from someone who was having probably easily-handled complications but was getting turned away in her hometown. Now she’s having to travel with cramps, with bleeding. Once she got here, she was clear. She was good, but she should have been able to be seen in her hometown.”

Pro-abortion community members outside of Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen | South Texans for Reproductive Justice Facebook

Oct. 3 marked 40 years since Jimenez died, and according to Peña, the effects of the Hyde Amendment, along with other bills passed in Texas that have restricted access to abortion, make organizations like Frontera Fund not only relevant but necessary.

“We paid for their hotel room for coming back for the second time, and we needed to accommodate their children too. (She was) coming down to address these complications from her procedure. Now, the thing is women shouldn’t die. People shouldn’t have to die like Rosie Jimenez did.”

While abortion is legal in the U.S., lawmakers have successfully chipped away abortion rights by making access to abortion difficult, especially for low-income people, people of color, and immigrants. The Hyde Amendment was the first of what would become many attacks on reproductive rights. In a state headed by conservative legislators like Texas, the right to an abortion is complicated when laws are continuously passed that require people to travel great distances and overcome one financial obstacle after another to get the medical help they need.

“Sometimes people are coming in for one day and they don’t need a hotel, but they desperately need help paying for the actual procedure,” Peña said. “They’ll say, ‘well, I can save up the $60 for gas and I can stay at my friend’s house, but I don’t have $300 to come up with for my procedure.’”

Gravesite of Rosie Jimenez | South Texans for Reproductive Justice Facebook

Frontera Fund originally set out to help people cover lodging costs needed by patients getting an abortion. The availability of clinics in Texas was greatly reduced as laws like HB2 in 2013 were passed that required clinics to meet hospital standards, forcing more than half of the facilities in the state to shut their doors. Since the passage of 2003’s HB15 requires a 24-hour waiting period before a person is able to get an abortion, this means that patients now have to travel great distances as well as pay to stay somewhere for at least one night until they can undergo the medical procedure.

As the organization continued to operate, they found that, besides lodging, people also needed help covering other costs including gas to travel and food to feed their children during their stay. It has also become common for the fund to contribute directly to procedure costs, and this extends beyond procedures taking place in McAllen.

“Say they’re from Weslaco but they’re going to San Antonio or to New Mexico to get their services, then they qualify for help,” Peña said. “Or they’re coming in from Corpus or San Antonio or Victoria or Alice or wherever really into the Rio Grande Valley, then they qualify for help.”

Frontera Fund extended the scope of their assistance once callers demonstrated the need. Travel outside of the Rio Grande Valley is necessary once a person is pregnant longer than the 17.6 weeks that is the limit for Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen or the 20 week limit for the entire state of Texas. If the person is not undocumented, they can travel outside of the Valley to New Mexico where the window to get an abortion is extended to 22 weeks. This is when abortion funds like Frontera Fund can help.

“They’re chipping away at access,” Peña said. “Which is why a lot of the rhetoric around reproductive justice right now is about access, and you’ll hear stuff like ‘no access, no choice.’ Because what choice is there when you can’t actually go to the clinic? Sure there are clinics open, but who can go to them? People who will never be affected by these laws are wealthy women who tend to not be women of color, definitely not immigrant women or undocumented women. Those are the women who will be affected. And the women who won’t be affected are those who can afford it.”

Flyer from Frontera Fund’s Facebook page

Frontera Fund is able to exist with the aid of grants and grassroots funding from the reproductive justice community itself as well as crowdfunding and donations from individual persons. The startup grant the group received came from another abortion fund based in Massachusetts, which currently does provide funding for abortions through their state version of Medicaid. This meant that the funding could be granted to the Texas-Mexico border-based abortion fund because the financial need was simply greater in Texas. Despite these grants and fundraisers, this does not mean that difficult conversations don’t come up for Peña when she’s trying to get help for callers.

“It’s disheartening to have to be like, ‘well do you have any valuables that you can sell?’ To have to get on that level with somebody is not a comfortable place to be for the other person on the line. So I try to make it a personal experience and make them feel dignified in this difficult situation that we’re having to talk about, that they’re having to explain to a total stranger about their financial difficulties. That’s also a part of the counseling, talking about how it’s not shameful. It’s not undignified. It’s not you; it’s them. This is the climate that we’re living in.”

That same day Peña received the urgent call from the woman, community members gathered that evening in McAllen for the memorial South Texans for Reproductive Justice hosted to honor the life of Jimenez.

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“When Rosie died, she was 6 months away from her teaching credential,” STRJ posted on their Facebook page after the memorial. “She had a financial aid check in her bag that she absolutely refused to touch; that money was reserved for her final semester of school. Her future was within grasp. How many people have had their future stolen because of the Hyde Amendment? It is for all of these people — including our friends, family, and community members — that we will continue to fight.”

Learn more about Frontera Fund and make a donation at lafronterafund.org.