The Rise of the DIY Abortion in Texas

* * *

It’s a balmy January morning as I make my way through the aisles of the Valley’s Alamo Flea Market, looking for the magic pill. I find a barrel-chested man in a tattered baseball hat who rests his hands on a table displaying an assortment of medicine: Umcka Cold Care, Posture-D Calcium, Anti-Nausea Liquid, and Valerian Root. He leans forward when customers approach the table, a messy mop of curly black hair peeking out from the bottom of his cap. Local sources have said I’ll be able to find miso here.

I head towards his booth cautiously, and the mop-haired man (who I later find out goes by Jeff Lopez) eyes me equally warily as I approach the table.

“Ummm,” I snatch a bottle of Ibuprofen and squint at the label. “Do you have anything for ulcers?”

Lopez stuffs his hands in his pockets. “We don’t have ulcer medicine,” he says. “Just the stuff on the table.” I’m not surprised he denies it; he may wonder if I’m an undercover agent of the law.

“Ok. Um, do you have something to make your period come back? I need to bring it back,” I trail off, scrutinizing his face for expression. “Cytoteca,” I say firmly, annunciating the teca in the familiar Spanish style. “Do you have it?”

He exhales dramatically.

“Not anymore. I haven’t had it since the police came,” he huffs, referring to a Valley flea market raid last August in Donna, Texas, where sheriffs uncovered a host of counterfeit drugs, including the diet pill Redotex and Viagra.

Shortly after, a woman was arrested for illegally selling thousands of prescription drugs nearby. (The drugs may be over the counter when bought in Mexico, but they are prescription drugs in the U.S. and illegal to distribute.) Though miso wasn’t uncovered in any of the raids, the overall crackdowns—and amped up policing—have made vendors wary of selling the pill. Lopez, who appears to have relaxed his caution, says the market was booming up until those raids.

"When I first found out how many women were asking for it, I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “The market had tons of people selling the pill, and I still got asked for it so many times. Almost every time I was here, someone asked me for it."

Lopez’s experience was common. There seemed to be a consensus among nearly everyone I interviewed—from health educators to Valley residents—that if abortion providers remain shut, women will continue to look for miso.

“If a woman wants to abort, she’s going to abort,” says Lucy Felix, a Valley-based promotora, or health educator, at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

A native of Reynosa, Mexico, Felix has a short brown bob and a bellowing laugh. She wears a thin, gold necklace, a souvenir that a friend brought back from a Catholic trip to Israel. In the middle, a pendant spells out her first name in Hebrew. Blowing on a hot bowl of soup inside a Mexican restaurant in Brownsville, Felix explains the dilemma that many local women face since the crackdown on miso. Now, to get to the nearest abortion providers, they have to pass through la garita, or immigration checkpoints.

“So undocumented women, what can they do?” she asks, flinging her hands in the air. “They put things in their vagina. I've heard that women are using coat hangers or some are going to Mexico and getting clandestine abortions, where it's dirty, unhygienic.” Felix gulps down a spoonful of broth. “Other women go to the flea markets. There are still places where you can get pills.”

McAllen’s Whole Women’s Health stopped providing abortion services after the admitting privileges provision went into effect and shut down entirely in March.

“It’s just the beginning,” the center’s former patient advocate, Luzevlia Carreon, observes. “It’s in demand right now. It’s what our patients are doing and they’re going to continue taking it. … The fact of the matter is that women are going to get pills and are going to figure out ways to have an abortion.”

HB2 took the community by surprise, Carreon says. Many had relied on the clinic for years.

“They were so shocked when they found out we weren’t offering abortions anymore. I even have patients that call, and after we tell them that we can’t offer abortions anymore, they’ll just say, 'That’s fine. I’m going to figure out a way to do this on my own.' And imagine all the women who don’t call us at all, who are still taking [miso],” she sighs. “We have no idea how many are doing this. We just hope for the best.”

* * *

In Latin America, miso was a secretive lifeline for many women without means to have other options. Now that the same is happening in the United States, the phenomenon is even more underground here. The networks are just starting to develop and proper information about dosage is not widely available. Moreover, those in the know appear hesitant to distribute material—much of which is circulated around Latin America—about how to safely take the drug.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 21 million women annually have unsafe abortions worldwide, which account for nearly 13 percent of all maternal deaths. Miso is a much safer alternative. If taken in the correct quantities (four to 12 pills over the course of at least nine hours) in a women’s first trimester, the drug is 80 to 85 percent effective.

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Erica Hellerstein is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California.

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