How to get an abortion in the Rio Grande Valley

If you are pregnant and you don’t want to be, here is one thing you should know: You have options. If you’re based in the Rio Grande Valley, here’s a guide for you.

But first thing’s first: Maybe you’re not actually pregnant, but you’re worried because something went wrong with your regular contraception method.

Emergency contraception exists and is available. Known as the morning-after pill, it can be taken up to five days after you have sex, but is the most effective within 72 hours and works with the hormone progestin to stop an egg from being released by the ovaries.

You can buy Plan B, one of the most common brands for this emergency contraception, at a pharmacy.  Clinics like Access Esperanza, located in McAllen, Weslaco, Edinburg and Mission, offer Plan B for free to first-time qualifying patients.

Photo: Whole Woman’s Health Facebook

“Patients who make less than $2,500 a month can typically get it for free,” Jackie Joy Ho-Shing from Access Esperanza told Neta. “After the first time, it’s $35 for each prescription.”

While Plan B can help stop a pregnancy from happening, new data is emerging that suggests that this emergency contraceptive is not effective for people who weigh more than 175 pounds. The FDA is currently reviewing whether it should relabel the package to reflect the effectiveness. There are other pills available, but currently, Plan B is the only one-pill emergency contraception that has no age requirements for people trying to purchase the pill.

If you are already past the point of an emergency contraception, you might still want to confirm that you’re pregnant. Sometimes at-home pregnancy tests are unreliable or you might just want to be extra sure. Thankfully, there are professionals who work at clinics specifically for this, and sometimes these services are even free. Clinics like Access Esperanza also offer pregnancy tests as part of their services.

For people who live in Cameron County, there is Planned Parenthood in Brownsville and Harlingen. Planned Parenthood typically has options for people with low income or for folks who do not have insurance.

After you have confirmed that you are indeed pregnant and have decided that you do not want to carry the pregnancy to term, you have the option of calling Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen. It is the only abortion clinic serving the Rio Grande Valley, a result of the ever-increasing restrictive anti-abortion laws passed in Texas over the last five years.

Photo: Whole Woman’s Health Facebook

“Our main services are abortion care. We can see patients up until 17.6 weeks from the first day of their last period,” said Kristeena Banda, LVN and Clinic Manager of Whole Woman’s Health.

“We do offer two different options. [One] is the medical abortion, otherwise knows as the pill, and that is offered up until ten weeks of the first day of your last period. We also offer our surgical procedure and that one is offered all the way up until the 17.6 weeks.”

Besides abortion services, Whole Woman’s Health offers ultrasounds for people who want to know how far along they are and counseling for people who want to know their options, amongst other reproductive health services.

“Without making somebody feel like we are questioning their decision, we ask and we go through the different aspects of pregnancy,” Banda said. “Like, the whole continuing pregnancy, abortion, or adoption. It’s talking to patients and kind of exploring their feelings. A lot of the times a lot of the patients weren’t expecting that kind of counseling experience where it’s not judgmental. We’re not here to force you to do anything.”

If someone has decided to come into the clinic to get an abortion, their first visit will comprise of a consultation with an ultrasound, lab work, and counseling as part of the visit. The first consultation visit is $100 and the clinic requires that the patient and anybody coming in to accompany them must bring an ID.

“Patients already need to have an ID to clarify that it’s them and their date of birth and that kind of stuff, but escorts that come in as well [need an ID ]and that’s just for security reasons,” Banda said. An escort is a person who accompanies a patient during their visit to offer support.

“It has happened in the past where we’ve had some issues with escorts and things can get a little bit heated you know or if a discussion escalates into something else. It has happened in the past, so we have to look out for the safety of all the other patients, but also the safety of my physicians, as well as my staff.”

Banda says that while being completely behind access to abortion is not a requirement of people accompanying WWH patients, the person a patient brings to accompany them should be supportive of them. She also understands that a person might need a whole support system during the process, but advises patients to try to limit the number of people they actually bring to the clinic to one person.

Here is one thing you should know: You have options.

“That’s difficult and sometimes it’s more than one [person], but I don’t have the space to hold everybody. There are times where the waiting room is completely full and I’ve had gentlemen escorts sitting and patients standing up, and so I’ll be like ‘okay, we gotta switch this,’” Banda said.

But patients can take comfort that they can take their escort into the room with them during the procedure.

“For some patients that makes a world of difference.”

For people who want to avoid the waiting room or the wait, there are options to be brought in through the back entrance of the clinic or to be pushed to the front of the line, but both options cost extra for a patient due to the fact that the rest of the patients will be made to wait a little longer. For a patient who needs and can afford it, they can even make an appointment to have the clinic to themselves.

“We have the VIP services which means that the entire clinic is shut down for someone,” said Banda. “It’s really rare if that happens, but it has happened.”

For both a medical and surgical abortion, it will cost patients about $550. Unfortunately, Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed a law this past summer that would require people with insurance to purchase additional insurance to cover their abortion-related medical services. An additional expenditure many cannot afford. Whole Woman’s Health helps patients cover their expenses whether they are getting an abortion at the McAllen clinic or need to be referred to another clinic in Texas or surrounding states depending on how far along they are in their pregnancy.

“We work with a couple of clinics in the state of Texas, as well as in Colorado and New Mexico, that can work with patients depending on the gestation,” Banda said. “So we’ll call over there, get the funding, try to figure all that out for the patient. We do as much as we can to lessen their stress load because it’s already stressful to figure out that you can’t have it here and you’ll have to travel. We’ll have a conversation with the staff over there and the patient, at least to get the beginning parts for them (settled). We do as much as we can with the funding. I myself work to secure additional funding for travel including working with Texas Fund Choice, the Frontera Fund, and the Lillith Fund. We try to cover as much as we can to lessen the burden for them. And at that point, it becomes a community effort.”

As Banda mentioned, there are several abortion funds throughout Texas that are trying to fill in the gaps the state has left by restricting abortion access. These include places like La Frontera Fund, which is based out of the Rio Grande Valley and works to “provide practical support to people seeking abortions in the Rio Grande Valley and to Rio Grande Valley residents who travel to other clinics in Texas.” Other Texas-based funds include the Lillith Fund, “which provides direct financial assistance to empower people seeking to terminate an unwanted pregnancy”, and Fund Texas Choice, a non-profit organization that pays for Texans’ travel to abortion clinics.

For patients who are undocumented, getting an abortion once they are past the 17.6-week cap is difficult.

Photo: Whole Woman’s Health Facebook

“If patients are undocumented and they have to cross [the immigration checkpoints outside Falfurrias, Texas, and Sarita, Texas], at that point, there’s only so much we can do,” Banda said. “We can set up the appointment still and at that point, it’s up to them, and that’s really hard. It’s extremely hard.”

Proving once more, the inhumane and dangerous consequences of militarizing the border and restricting people from traveling and receiving the healthcare they need.

Besides an ID and finding means to pay for the abortion, the other thing Banda advises for potential patients to prepare for is spending a couple of hours in the waiting room, which can get cold. Prepare to bring a sweater, something to read, and the confidence in knowing that you will be very well attended and taken care of.

“The only days that we have consultation is Thursday and Friday. So let’s say you were able to find out you were pregnant on Monday. You can call in and we can get you in on the schedule for that week. It’s very, very rare that we have a waiting list meaning that the schedule is booked or packed. We rarely ever put anybody on the waiting list because we understand the importance of it. That might lead to a longer wait period for other folks or for you while you’re here but patients and people tend to understand that that long waiting period is because we’re trying to help everyone that we can in a two-day span.”

While they have become used to working in a hostile environment, Banda and the staff at Whole Woman’s Health want persons who are seeking abortions to not become discouraged at the sight of protesters surrounding the clinic.

“The (anti-abortion) protesters are outside and it’s difficult for our patients to navigate. But there are people out there to help. Our security guard is out there to help,” said Banda. “Don’t let the protesters scare you away. That’s their ultimate goal.”

South Texans for Reproductive Justice, a local community group that volunteers their time to help escort patients from their vehicles to the clinic, protects WWH patients from anti-abortion protestors. Pro-choice clinic escorts typically wear rainbow vests to distinguish themselves from the anti-abortion protesters. And the rainbow-clad escorts will lead patients directly to the clinic instead of to the so-called Crisis Pregnancy Center that misleads people seeking abortions with medically inaccurate information and scare tactics.

Crisis Pregnancy Centers, or CPCs, are anti-abortion clinics that may or may not have medically trained staff. They are known to mislead people into thinking they are receiving objective medical care but instead provide misleading information about the person’s pregnancy. There have been reports of staff at CPCs shaming people for wanting to get an abortion.

“We will never ever send you anywhere else to have your first part of your consultation done,” said Banda, acknowledging some of the diversion tactics anti-choice protesters will use on the chance that they intercept a patient. Some protesters have gone as far as telling people the consultation they scheduled at WWH is at the CPC.

“The last thing we want is for any other barriers between our patients,” said Banda. “So if you need help, just let us know. “

Options are essential in making informed decisions concerning bodily integrity. Although the fight for reproductive justice and full bodily autonomy continues, it’s important to know the Rio Grande Valley has services like Whole Woman’s Health and organizations pushing forward to provide those choices.

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Samantha Herrera contributed to this story. // Photo: Pro-choice demonstration in Washington, D.C., by Flickr user Jordan Uhl.