Gossip Saves Lives

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We travel to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where abortion bans intersect with immigration policy. And our team crosses the border into Mexico to buy something you can’t get in Texas: abortion pills.

Learn more about Frontera Fund at https://fronterafundrgv.org/.

Learn more about the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health at https://www.latinainstitute.org/.

To learn more about all the organizations featured in The Defenders, visit: https://lemonadamedia.com/the-defenders-resource-page/

Share your thoughts on The Defenders! To help us keep creating great content, please take our short listener survey at bit.ly/thedefenderssurvey

Gloria Riviera and Samantha Bee are our hosts. Muna Danish is our supervising producer. Lisa Phu is our producer. Isaura Aceves and Tony Williams are our associate producers. Ivan Kuraev and Natasha Jacobs are our audio engineers. Music by Hannis Brown with additional music by Natasha Jacobs. Story editing by Jackie Danziger, our VP of Narrative Content. Fact-checking by Naomi Barr. Executive producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs

This series is supported by Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Levi Strauss Foundation.

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To follow along with a transcript, go to lemonadamedia.com/show/ shortly after the air date.



Ivan, Speaker 3, Speaker 2, Isara, Kathy, Samantha Bee, Eleanor klibanoff, Nancy Cárdenas Peña, Checkpoint, Gloria Riviera, Jessica Valenti, Renee Bracey Sherman, Market Recording, Clerk, News 1, Sarah

Gloria Riviera  00:01

Hey everyone first off, we want to thank you for listening to The Defenders and now we want to hear from you what you’ve learned what sticking with you what questions you still have, and what you’re motivated to do as a result of listening. Right now you can take our short survey to help us better understand the impact of our work. And even better once you’ve completed the survey, you can enter for a chance to win a $100 Visa gift card. The survey is short and sweet and will help us keep bringing you content you love. Take the survey at bit.li/the defenders survey. That’s bit.li/the defenders survey. Thanks again.


Speaker 2  01:41

This really does look like another foreigner or that this looks exactly like a border.


Speaker 3  01:57

Do we need our passports now?


Speaker 2  01:59

Maybe fast forward. So this is like how many lanes here eight lanes.


Kathy  02:05

We’re driving north on to 81 from McAllen, Texas and about to go through the Fel furious checkpoint. We’re about 70 miles from the Mexico border. It’s moving actually pretty quickly. I mean, there was hardly any traffic. I don’t even sign leading up to the checkpoint said inspection station. Two signs that say K9s are on duty. But we’re moving pretty quickly through this checkpoint. It’s just massive at big, big metal roof. Lots of cameras, I don’t even know how many cameras we’ve passed already.


Gloria Riviera  02:42

Kathy tourist says one of the hardest things about living in the Rio Grande Valley are the interior checkpoints. Kathy is from the valley and works for Frontera Fund a local abortion fund.


Kathy  02:52

When you are traveling north anywhere out of the valley. You have to pass these checkpoints, there’s no other way around it.


Gloria Riviera  03:00

The US Border Patrol runs these. There are three in the Valley and around 20 Total permanent checkpoints in Texas. They look and function like an actual border crossing except they’re not at the border. They’re inside the US, like imagine if you couldn’t drive from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh without encountering a border agent. If you’re leaving the Rio Grande Valley and your destination is another spot in Texas, you will encounter a checkpoint and agents have a right to stop every single car that’s driving out. Nancy Cárdenas Peña, a reproductive justice activist and policy expert in Texas, says the checkpoints have evolved over the years.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  03:42

You know, maybe five or 10 years ago, they were very tiny little outposts and now because of health of their funding, they’re these like gigantic buildings that have X ray scanners, they have K9s, they have Border Patrol agents that stop you and ask you about your immigration status or where you’re going or what you’re doing or if you have anyone in the car. So basically, the interaction that you would expect at an international port of entry is something that happens at checkpoints.


Gloria Riviera  04:10

Then it’s our turn. I’m sitting in the passenger seat in our compact SUV rental. Our audio engineer Ivan is driving and he’s wearing an audio recorder on his chest


Checkpoint  04:21

I’ll be going through everybody here your family. All your citizens?


Ivan  04:27

There’s a recording equipment.


Checkpoint  04:28

Oh, that’s pretty cool.


Gloria Riviera  04:30

Thanks, thank you. So that was a US Border Patrol. person. And that was a pretty easy passageway through that checkpoint. The whole experience from when we pulled up to the checkpoint to being questioned was fast. Yeah, that took all of I mean, a minute 30 at most, and we’re out. Even thought our recording equipment was cool. It’s cool, as we said, and it’s cool, yeah he’s inspiring podcast hosts. Joking aside, Nancy had described this sort of quick exchange at the checkpoint for people who are white, like Ivan and I, who are sitting in the front, Usara, who’s Mexican American was in the back with our other producer, Lisa, who’s Asian.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  05:18

For someone who looks as white as me. They basically just asked me, Where are you going? Okay, have a safe trip. For someone who is black and brown in our communities, the questions are much more intense. It is very normal to have racial profiling for people who are brown to get stopped and asked many more questions for them to inspect your vehicles, or K9s  to inspect your vehicles. And so it’s definitely, you know, prevents a lot of people from accessing other areas outside of the Rio Grande Valley.


Gloria Riviera  05:48

And this is true whether you’re talking about getting an abortion or any other health care you can’t get in the valley. The checkpoints make it hard for people to leave for any number of reasons. Imagine being accepted into a college outside the valley, and the hard choices and risks that might entail. Even simply taking the students on a field trip or to a high school sports event in San Antonio can be stressful if there are undocumented students on the bus. Because of the abortion ban in Texas, many people travel out of state to get care. But for someone who’s undocumented, Kathy says each internal checkpoint creates an impenetrable wall.


Kathy  06:24

So you’re landlocked between the checkpoint and the border crossing you are stuck. Your options are abysmal. So people who are undocumented and need an abortion are either forced into parenthood or they’re just straight up risking deportation.


Gloria Riviera  06:42

There is one other option. Nancy says.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  06:45

For people who are undocumented in the Rio Grande Valley, really medication abortion is the only option.


Gloria Riviera  06:52

Medication abortion has been around for two decades and is widely used with Roe overturned and states imposing ban after ban. There’s been a surge in demand and interest.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  07:04

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve never had as many conversations around medication abortion, as I’m having now. And this is from someone who I had a medication abortion in 2017. So I know exactly what folks are asking, I know exactly what folks are going through. And I have never discussed it so much as I’m discussing it this year.


Gloria Riviera  07:30

This is The Defenders a show about the fight for freedom in a post roe America, I’m Gloria Rivera.


Samantha Bee  07:36

And I’m Samantha Bee, this week we learn about the fight for reproductive justice in the southernmost part of Texas where abortion bans intersect with immigration and our team crosses the Mexico border to buy something you can’t get in Texas abortion pills.


Kathy  07:53

So it’s a white box. The brand name is Sirex but right under it, it says misoprostol.


Gloria Riviera  08:11

KathyTorres has spent her whole life in the Rio Grande Valley. She lives in Edinburg and Hidalgo County, which means she’s about a five hour drive from Austin, and only 30 minutes from Mexico.


Kathy  08:22

I just I love my home. I guess what I like is family and friends are in such close quarters. You know, like everyone is sort of together. The valley is a bunch of small cities in a stretch of four counties. But I just know that I have a cousin in some city somewhere.


Gloria Riviera  08:40

These four counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley are located in the southernmost tip of Texas along the border with Mexico. So if you imagine the shape of Texas, think about that very bottom point. That’s the Rio Grande Valley or simply the valley. It’s home to about 1.3 million people on the US side. Kathy says it is very community oriented.


Kathy  09:04

We just get things done. And it’s it’s in response to how the state neglects us a lot in our region a lot. And with that, we as a community, it’s we who got us we got each other.


Gloria Riviera  09:20

That community spirit is at the core of Kathy’s work is the organizing manager for Fonterra fund. Today she’s a go to resource on reproductive health and abortion. But she didn’t always have all the answers. When Kathy was a freshman in college, two close friends got pregnant. They turned it to Kathy but she didn’t know how to guide them.


Kathy  09:43

So they both ended up having to find some sketchy pills online. Thankfully they worked but they paid like hundreds of dollars for them like it was such an unnecessary hoops that they had to jump when we had a clinic like 15 minutes away.


Gloria Riviera  10:00

She says they didn’t go to the clinic because it was more expensive than the pills. Her friends were also scared of the protesters outside, afraid of what people might think.


Kathy  10:11

You know, this was 2014. And I just remember just being so upset because I felt like I couldn’t help. And I knew that there was a wedge didn’t know how.


Gloria Riviera  10:21

Soon after that experience, Kathy learned about reproductive justice, she joined every repro. org under the sun, she became an organizer and a clinic escort. Then in 2015 Frontera Fund launched as an abortion fund that provides financial support for people in the valley looking to get an abortion.


Kathy  10:41

If this existed a few months ago, my friends would have just, it would have been so much easier for them, they were always on my mind.


Gloria Riviera  10:51

In her work at fronteira fund, Kathy takes away the stress takes away the hoops to jump through that her friends in college faced. It’s part of her job helping community members access abortions and plan their futures. The community in the Rio Grande Valley is predominantly people of color, more than 90% are Latinx. The area has a high rate of uninsured people and many faced financial insecurity.


Kathy  11:15

A lot of families here have the experience of living in a mixed status family. So maybe they have a household of five people, at least someone at least one person might be undocumented. It’s very common here.


Gloria Riviera  11:27

That’s how Nancy Cárdenas Peña grew up, in a mixed status family right on the border of Mexico. For her family members and many others in the region, accessing health care is linked with immigration status.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  11:39

Ever since I was little, I’ve always had to go to make people for health care. And that meant that some of my family members who weren’t documented and needed medicine, how to rely on me as someone who was documented to get all of their medicine for them.


Gloria Riviera  11:54

She remembers being on phone calls between doctors in Mexico and family members in Texas, trying to figure out what was wrong and what medicines they needed. For many people in the valley healthcare in the US. That’s just not an option due to cost, Nancy says, and undocumented people don’t qualify for assistance programs. The problem with accessing health care is only the tip of the iceberg for people in the Rio Grande Valley. Nancy says living on the border means being over policed and feeling unwelcome in your own home.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  12:28

In the Rio Grande Valley. We have various authorities that sort of enforce immigration at the state level. And so we do have military, we have eyes, we have Border Patrol, we have police that have been enabled by previous legislation to enforce immigration policy as well. And so we have a mixture of so many different sorts of forces, uplifting the deportation machine and the criminalization of people who just want to exist and live their lives in these areas.


Gloria Riviera  12:57

Nancy says the fear makes it hard for many in the valley to live normal lives.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  13:03

Were seeing an impact people who were genuinely scared of going to their health care appointments because there was now police on their way and they could be stopped. We have people who are scared to pick up their kids from school as well because there is also presence of police and DPS and border patrol on their routes. We’ve had cases where people have been stopped or broken taillights and put into detention.


Gloria Riviera  13:25

If people in the valley are scared to pick up their kids from school. Imagine the fear that surrounds getting an abortion Frontera Funds, Kathy Torres. She says she can hear it in the calls she receives on the hotline.


Kathy  13:38

The tone Now aside from the anxiety of like, okay, I don’t know where to go, is a very real fear of criminalization that has come up a lot of people have asked like, can I go to jail for this? Not just like, well, I get in trouble. Well, I’ll be sued no, like straight up, can I go to jail for this? Or if I have a miscarriage will, I go to jail for that. You might be bleeding and your concern is jail. Like I can’t believe this world that we’re living in. And then it’s also like, I’m glad they’re asking that question, because it’s a good question at this point.


Gloria Riviera  14:20

This fear, it can create a real doubt in people to even make that call to an abortion fund. Because criminalization for abortion is very real in Texas. Before Dobs there was Senate Bill eight, which banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Back in September 2021 it was the most draconian ban on abortion in the country. Some months later, a 26 year old from Starr County was even charged with murder for having a quote unquote, self induced abortion after six weeks.


Kathy  14:57

This is what the laws were created to do. They’re confusing, there was no grounds for her to go to jail at all.


Gloria Riviera  15:04

Even though there was an outcry, and the charges were later dropped. The arrests left a chilling message, you could be arrested for having an abortion. Kathy may have been shocked about the arrest. But she was not surprised it happened in the valley.


Kathy  15:19

Because there is policing everywhere, everywhere. And because of where we’re located, and because of our demographic, because of the color of our skin, the way we talk our last names. This is the area that they’re going to target first and foremost.


Gloria Riviera  15:37

Simply sharing information is risky. With all the restrictions in place in Texas, Nancy says she can be criminalized for telling someone how to get abortion pills. So she approaches the topic very carefully. Still, word gets around, as it always has.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  15:58

We have the saying in Spanish that’s called chismes saves lives, gossip save saves lives. Because the biggest way that we seem to turn out information about medication abortion is that people talk amongst themselves and then they talk to their neighbors and they talk to their other neighbors, definitely through the matriarch of their families that spread this information like wildfire.


Gloria Riviera  16:19

This reminds me of what Kathy said about the valley. It’s the community who’s got each other. That’s the backbone of Frontera funds work.


Kathy  16:26

We know that we’re not alone. When we fund an abortion, it’s because everyone came together to support us and to make that possible.


Gloria Riviera  16:36

And that fuels them to keep the fight going, no matter what comes at them. When we return what happens when Frontera and other Texas abortion funds become the target after Roe falls.


Gloria Riviera  18:05

A lot of people remember the day Roe fell. Kathy remembers the night before.


Kathy  19:14

I had a gut feeling tomorrow morning’s a day. So I had let clinics we’ve worked closely with and other funds know I’m staying up all night. I’m funding as many abortions as I can. And I funded the last abortion of 2022 between one or three in the morning.


Gloria Riviera  19:36

Kathy’s gut feeling it was right. The US Supreme Court overturned Roe the next day, after a huge amount of what Kathy called ugly crying. She and her boss got to work. They took media calls and flip the switch on a pre recorded voicemail. Yeah, they were prepared.



Thank you for calling from Frontera Fund in light of the Supreme Court’s decision and the insertenty around Texas law, we are forced to pause funding at this time Frontera Fund is working diligently with our legal team and state and national partners to get through this crisis.


Gloria Riviera  20:12

After years of helping people in the valley pay for abortions in Texas and out of state Frontera Fund stopped. Kathy, did you ever think about the people who would be calling and getting that message and what it would be like for them?


Kathy  20:28

Yeah, the thought nurse left my head. I felt horrible and felt like I’m right here. I could just answer and you know, the thought will run through my head could answer no one would know. It’s like the frantic thought process just like an endless Rolodex of ways that I wish I could help and I can’t.


Gloria Riviera  20:48

Frontera was one of several funds in Texas that stopped paying for abortions. As soon as Roe fell. There was so much confusion over what laws were enforceable, and if funds could be criminalized for funding out of state abortions, with abortions finally outlawed funds like fronteira had become the last line of defense in Texas, and now they were a very clear target. When the six week ban passed in September 2021, it was the most severe abortion restriction in the country. The number of Texans traveling out of state in the months after it was implemented shot up dramatically. Planned Parenthood clinics and surrounding states saw an 800% increase in abortion patients from Texas 800% abortion funds were basically the only reason a lot of folks in Texas could even get an abortion pre jobs. So the anti side wanted to stop them. Eleanor klibanoff The women’s health reporter at the Texas Tribune says the pushback on abortion funds started well before Dobbs.


Eleanor klibanoff  21:50

Certain anti abortion lawmakers started laying this groundwork. They issued a cease and desist letter to all the abortion funds saying what you are doing is in violation of state law. With the caveat of if Roe V. Wade is overturned and basically saying you know we can’t go after you now, but we will.


Gloria Riviera  22:07

It was like a warning shot saying we have our eyes on you. And when Roe did fall, the Texas Attorney General celebrated.


News 1  22:16

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared that June 24 is now a holiday for those working under the age of that state is to commemorate the sanctity of life and mark the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.


Gloria Riviera  22:33

Yeah, talk about rubbing it in. Beside celebrating Ken Paxton also encouraged local prosecutors to enforce abortion laws that had been on the books since before the Civil War. Under these laws, sometimes called Zombie statutes, anyone who provides an abortion or helps another person get an abortion could be criminalized. That meant abortion funds were essentially fair game. The state had succeeded in making abortion illegal in Texas, and it wanted to do the same thing to abortion funds. But Frontera and other abortion funds wouldn’t accept that fate. Here’s Kathy.


Kathy  23:14

One of our roles as abortion funds and practical support organizations is to advocate for communities and one way is through the court system. They utilize the same court system to restrict us. So we’re going to play their own game, you know and get what we need. Let’s be proactive. Let’s give them a taste of nanomedicine, let’s sue these people.


Gloria Riviera  23:38

The abortion funds sued the Texas Attorney General in August 2020 to two months after the fall of Roe. The lawsuit challenged the state’s power to go after them and other groups that help Texans get out of state care. The funds wanted assurance. They wanted a green light before they returned to funding abortions. And several months later, they got it. Eleanor klibanoff again.


Eleanor klibanoff  24:03

This hudge, Robert Pittman said the abortion funds can continue to fund abortions out of state without fear of criminalization.


Gloria Riviera  24:09

The February ruling was a victory for the abortion funds and here’s why. Texas officials didn’t want to just stop abortions inside Texas. They wanted to stop as many people as possible from getting them outside the state with the lawsuit. The abortion funds were basically arguing Texas can’t dictate a person’s ability to cross state lines for health care. And a federal judge agreed. The wind didn’t change abortion access within Texas. But it meant abortion funds could once again help people especially marginalized communities, get the care they need somewhere else. Kathy said the ruling was music to her ears.


Kathy  24:56

It really offered us like the legal protections that we needed to start funding abortion again, without the fear of criminalization or civil liability.


Gloria Riviera  25:05

Eight months had passed since Fonterra funded its last abortion just before Roe fell. Kathy remembers it clearly. But what’s also memorable is the first abortion Frontera funded after the ruling came in. Kathy said it was bliss having the power to do that. She describes talking to the person on the hotline.


Kathy  25:25

I remember them saying, I’ve called so many different places and I was just wondering if you could help me fund my procedure. And I remember saying yes, yeah, we can and she was like, so happy she’s like, you don’t know I’ve called like for several days. And I remember telling her well, we just found out we could so you called at the right time. It was just the best feeling. This is why we keep fighting these moments right here.


Gloria Riviera  25:54

And those moments keep coming.


Kathy  26:14

Hi, this is the Frontera Fund, we just received your message. Can you talk right now? Okay, great.


Gloria Riviera  26:22

We’re at Kathy’s house in Edinburg in late May. Her home office is very neatly decorated with pro abortion knickknacks, bright art and pop culture posters. Like the Backstreet Boys, the Rocky Horror Picture Show and my personal favorite a framed poster of the movie Mean Girls. Kathy handles the hotline calls. That’s part of her job at fronteira fund. People call leave a voicemail and Kathy calls them back.


Kathy  26:47

And then you said your appointment was at Whole Woman’s Health of New Mexico. Okay, perfect we work with them.


Gloria Riviera  26:54

The caller explains how they wanted to get an abortion locally, but saw that the nearby whole Women’s Health was closed. They found the New Mexico clinic online, made an appointment and was referred to Frontera.


Kathy  27:06

Things are really confusing right now. I’m I’m really glad that you were able to get an appointment and call we’re very happy to help. And then once we’re done, I’m happy to answer any questions you have too. So what is the total cost that you need to cover?


Gloria Riviera  27:22

Around $500, the caller says it’s a big number, immediately Kathy replies.


Kathy  27:30

Okay, so we will be able to cover the 500 in full we will send a voucher for 500 to the clinic. So when you get to your appointment, just let them know that from telephone helped you. They’ll pull up the voucher and and then you just sign it so you don’t have to worry about anything. We got it from here on out in terms of your abortion care.


Gloria Riviera  27:51

Kathy goes over a few final details and wraps up the call.


Kathy  27:55

Thank you. Thank you for your trust, take care.


Gloria Riviera  27:57

The entire call takes just eight minutes, and that’s it. The caller’s $500 abortion is paid for. There’s no paperwork, no additional questions, no hoops to jump through. It’s straightforward and it’s done with just one phone call. That’s not what American Healthcare is normally like. But with Frontera Fund it’s simple. Kathy says beyond helping to pay for abortions she also offers emotional support on the hotline. She makes the conversations warm, so people are comfortable. And there’s something so empathetic and understanding about Kathy’s voice. It’s hard to articulate exactly what it is. But I would be glad if she picked up the phone. Despite Kathy and Frontera Funds, incredible persistence, there is still the ongoing fear that all this work could soon be illegal. are you so still afraid that you could be criminalized for funding abortions?


Kathy  28:58

Of course, we’re always going to be tied to that. Concern that fear, because they’re still very confusing laws that people might misinterpret because they’re confusing so there’s always going to be that fear.


Gloria Riviera  29:14

And even though the abortion funds got this when I hate to tell you, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Here’s Texas reporter Eleanor klibanoff again.


Eleanor klibanoff  29:23

Abortion funds are still a prime target for anti abortion groups.


Gloria Riviera  29:27

And in some ways, what’s legal or not, is kind of beside the point for anti abortion folks Eleanor, says it’s about inciting fear.


Eleanor klibanoff  29:37

A big part of that is like, we just have to, like, stir up enough conversation that someone might think I don’t want to go volunteer for my local abortion fund, or I don’t want to donate.


Gloria Riviera  29:48

All of that stuff, the threats and demands to stop doing what they’re doing, it’s all just noise to Kathy.


Kathy  29:56

We know the risk, we’re educated in the moves that we make, but the long term goal is what matters the most for us. All we want for our community is for people to plan their futures and their lives and raise their families safely and with dignity. And in a culture cultivated by community.


Gloria Riviera  30:20

In the valley, there’s a lot of community work happening. People taking care of one another chisme getting passed around and saving lives. People are filling needs in informal ways outside of any traditional infrastructure. One of the ways of doing this is helping an undocumented family member or friend get abortion pills from Mexico. And our production team finds out what that’s like. After the break, we crossed the border.


Sarah  33:32

There’s people just walking in, there’s families there’s no real like policing like no border patrol, no police, no officers nothing getting this the US side, so it’s very just kind of like pretty chill.


Gloria Riviera  33:50

That’s Sarah one of the producers, we are at the Texas Mexico border. Our team is taking a day trip to Mexico to buy abortion pills. Something you can’t do in Texas. We walk across the Progressive International Bridge over the Rio Grande. We see families people with strollers, it’s nice that this is shaded we’re walking along a narrow corridor that has a roof over it whereby some huge trucks going in. We walked through a small building the official entry into Mexico and were met with an onslaught of sights and sounds.


Market Recording  34:25

Like pharmacy right now. I’m gonna start next volume Ambien ZOMO said peak for weight loss right now. You’re the best because on one side it’s pharmacy after pharmacy after dental office on the other side, it’s like kiosk after kiosk jewelry, sandals shoes, hats, hats, hats, so many hats. Sunglasses, yeah, it’s like Catholic already for farmers.


Gloria Riviera  34:49

Outside the pharmacies, people are holding cardboard signs with empty boxes and bottles of medication taped on.


Market Recording  34:55

Antibiotics, amoxicillin […]


Gloria Riviera  35:01

Like Kathy, Nancy said, going to Mexico for health care and medications is normal.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  35:06

It is very telling the town, like the fact that these stores are right on the border is signifying how much people come to get their stuff, you know, like so they they’re catering deals like constant crossings and constant needs of the people in the US, right? Because it’s everything’s here, so you don’t really need to leave that block alone.


Gloria Riviera  35:29

Nuevo Progreso is a touristy border town in Mexico. Kathy says it’s a place where people in the valley go to get lunch, go shopping and get health care.


Kathy  35:38

However, like undocumented people can’t necessarily just walk right over, they can’t because then they can’t come back in. So more oftentimes, a not a person who’s undocumented probably has a friend or someone they met along the way who can.


Gloria Riviera  35:54

And the undocumented person might ask that friend to go to Mexico and bring back abortion pills.


Kathy  35:59

Being someone from the valley my whole life. We have our premiums and our friends who have a friend who got pregnant and just went to progresso, and got medication. So that’s essentially what’s happening.


Gloria Riviera  36:15

I was actually kind of surprised when I found out you can just buy abortion pills in Mexico, Sam did you know that? It’s such a Catholic country? I guess I assumed anything abortion related would be super illegal there.


Samantha Bee  36:29

Well, Gloria, for most of the last 50 years, you would have been right. But as abortion rights have been under attack in the United States, they’ve actually been expanding in Mexico after a long campaign to change hearts and minds.


Gloria Riviera  36:44

Wait, really? Let’s zoom out on that for a second tell me more.


Samantha Bee  36:47

Oh, I would love to. Okay, so for the 50 years or so, Roe v. Wade was on the books abortion was largely illegal in Mexico, but it was still somewhat possible to get a medication abortion that started back in 1985 when misoprostol became widely available,


Gloria Riviera  37:05

Okay, but how did people get it if abortions were mostly illegal?


Samantha Bee  37:10

Well, fun fact, misoprostol was originally developed to prevent ulcers, and it’s still used for that in a lot of places. It’s technically a prescription medication in Mexico, but they don’t require pharmacies to register prescriptions. So a lot of places just sold over the counter.


Gloria Riviera  37:27

Got it. So there’s sort of a gray market for it.


Samantha Bee  37:30

Exactly. But it’s kind of a crapshoot, figuring out which pharmacies will and won’t sell it. So access to it isn’t universal by any means. And neither is the knowledge of how to use it and pregnancy safely. But that started improving in recent years with the accompany amento or accompaniment movement. This is a group of feminist organizations that help people self manage their abortions. They get them over the counter misoprostol, they give them medical advice, and they accompany them through the whole process.


Gloria Riviera  38:03

It sounds kind of like a lot of the practical support funds we’ve talked to.


Samantha Bee  38:06

Right, Mexico is way ahead of us in helping people get misoprostol for self managed abortions, because they had to find ways around abortion bans for so long.


Gloria Riviera  38:17

And it sounds like they’ve had some major wins. What does that look like?


Samantha Bee  38:21

Well, first of all, we have to credit the incredible organizing by abortion rights activists, it has taken decades of work to get here. But starting with Mexico City in 2007, abortion gradually started to be decriminalized across the country, and then earlier this year, the Mexican Supreme Court completely changed the landscape. They ruled that people have the right to get an abortion anywhere in the country. Most Mexican states still technically have abortion bans on the books, but for the first time in Mexican history, you can go into a federal health care clinic anywhere in Mexico and get an abortion.


Gloria Riviera  39:01

That is pretty incredible, at least somebody is headed in the right direction.


Samantha Bee  39:06

It’s pretty amazing. And there are a ton of connections between activists in the southern US and northern Mexico. So it’s not at all surprising that when Texas banned abortion, people started crossing the border for misoprostol.


Samantha Bee  39:20

And that brings us back to our teams visit to Nuevo Progreso to see if we could get some of that misoprostol ourselves and to trace the journey of community care that Kathy described.


Sarah  39:36

This is is this if you want like a branch Yeah, this is one of them’s okay, go into this one if you want […]


Gloria Riviera  39:47

The first pharmacy we go into is at the end of a busy street a few blocks from the bridge. Esther and I look around blue shells line the lols with all kinds of medication. Oh look everything ibuprofen, back pain, aspirin, mouthwash. People behind the counter have white coats on are helping everyone. It’s business as usual. Before asking for misoprostol, we asked for Claritin just to ease into the conversation plus, we all figured we’d actually use it back home.


Market Recording  40:29

[…] I think was $2.75. Wow, okay [..]


Gloria Riviera  40:39

I mean, why not? That’s a good deal. Then we asked for some misoprostol. Kathy told us that pharmacies and whoever progresso don’t carry mifepristone, they only carry misoprostol, which can still be used on its own to end the pregnancy.


Market Recording  40:48

[…]  misoprostol.


Gloria Riviera  41:02

Without any hesitation, the pharmacy clerk goes behind some shelves towards the back and brings us a box of abortion pills. This is the misoprostol?


Market Recording  41:24

[…] $29, okay, yeah, so if you need anything else, no, I don’t think so. That’s good yeah.


Gloria Riviera  41:34

No questions asked. No prescription necessary. It is as easy to buy misoprostol as it is to buy Claritin.


Market Recording  41:46

So it’s a white box, the brand name is Sirex but right under it, it says misoprostol tablet 200 M C G micrograms oral. so that’s 28 pills. 28 pills okay, so $29.


Gloria Riviera  42:05

Using only misoprostol for an abortion is safe and effective. It works on average 93% of the time and can be used at or before 12 weeks of pregnancy. 28 pills the amount of the box we just bought is enough for about two abortions. We leave the first pharmacy with three bottles of Claritin and a box of misoprostol, all totaling about $35. The second pharmacy we go into is dim inside their window displays covered in newspaper, two clerks are sitting by the counter. After getting the price for Claritin, we asked for misoprostol.


Market Recording  42:40

The first woman just shook her head no and then the second woman was spelled a little bit of English. I heard her say oh, miso? like, oh, do they want miso? Yeah, it seemed like she was saying like we do have it. Yeah, and that’s when she like took over yeah.


Gloria Riviera  42:57

The second clerk went to a backroom and brought us the same box of misoprostol we just purchased except this time it cost $45. When we shared that we bought it for 29 and another pharmacy. The clerk lowered the price to $30. Our luck finding misoprostol seems to run out after that second pharmacy. We walked down the street in and out of a few more pharmacies and here a string of no’s.


Clerk  43:23

We don’t carry me suppose.


Gloria Riviera  43:24

You don’t, don’t care not anymore since when?


Clerk  43:28

Have not one year one year, my owner the one has said no more that when your owner doesn’t find you can find any other pharmacy.


Gloria Riviera  43:36

Do a lot of people ask you for it?


Clerk  43:38

Not every day, man, yeah, two times a week yeah.


Gloria Riviera  43:42

Okay, okay, well, we’ll take the Claritin.


Gloria Riviera  43:45

So according to the clerk at this pharmacy, it seems like they used to sell it but they stopped. Nancy had warned us about this.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  43:52

I think something to just keep an eye on is a lot of pharmacies in Mexico have sort of changed their tune when it comes to misoprostol.


Gloria Riviera  44:02

She said the culture around buying miso from pharmacies in Mexico has changed as laws around abortion began to change in Texas. Some pharmacists continue to sell. Others have started asking for a prescription Nancy says, and some have just stopped.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  44:18

There are some pharmacists who have concerns about the legality around it. Even though they’re in Mexico, they’re wondering if something’s going to happen to them. Is it illegal in Texas then are they going to come after me on this pharmacy and so it creates a lot of confusion on the Mexican side as well.


Gloria Riviera  44:35

So far, we have way too many bottles of Claritin and only two boxes of abortion pills. By this time, we’re close to the border again and decide to try one more pharmacy. It’s a small brightly lit shop. On one side of the wall medications fill white shelves. This time I get right to the chase.


Gloria Riviera  44:55

Good morning, good morning. Do you have misoprostol?


Clerk  44:58

Yes, it sounds good.


Gloria Riviera  45:01

Okay, oh, wow, it’s right out there how many tablets? 28 tablets 19.95 wow, that’s the lowest cost we found yet. Well, should we get it? I think we should, okay.


Gloria Riviera  45:18

The clerk hands the box over to us. It’s our third box of misoprostol and we’re just a few feet away from the US Mexico border.


Market Recording  45:27

Interesting, I thought it’d be more expensive by the border. Yeah, by the border and the farther you go, it’s the most expensive. Yeah, you really thought we’d come back here and they were like, okay, it’s $60 no 18 bucks. For the same exact box. I’m so glad that we went in there and again, our last pharmacy didn’t bought nine, here you go, no worries.


Gloria Riviera  45:48

Purchasing misoprostol in Mexico is a simple, easy and legal transaction, just like it is for other medication and healthcare needs. But there is also a shift happening. As abortion laws in Texas influence what happens at the Mexico border, at lunch and progresso. We all talk about what to do with these three boxes of misoprostol. With intersecting abortion bans in Texas on top of customs laws. It’s so intentionally convoluted. We don’t want to risk getting in trouble bringing the pills back into the US. But so many other people do on a regular basis. They bring medication that’s affordable and accessible in Mexico back into Texas, to take care of a family member or friend who can’t make the day trip themselves because they’re undocumented. Knowing this and how it’s in high demand all over the US none of us wants to simply throw the abortion pills away. So we consider different options.


Speaker 3  46:49

Can you return medicine? That’s not a thing, right?


Gloria Riviera  46:53

We text a contact in Mexico to see if they want the pills. We consider mailing them to an accompaniment organization. Eventually, it’s our ask the women working at our lunch spot if they want the medication. And they do, they say they’ll post about the pills on social media. And people can pick them up at the restaurant. That was good. […] We do a little shopping and then head back towards the border.


Gloria Riviera  47:19

Now we’re approaching a brick building. So I guess inside is where we’ll be showing. Okay, so there it says, entrance passport only.


Gloria Riviera  47:30

Going back into the US is definitely more of a process than leaving. Look at look at how many cameras 12345 cameras.


Sarah  47:41

Crossing over, you know, there’s like a procedure cars or line waiting to get checked. I saw like an officer in our checking someone’s trunk. We’ll see right now what it looks like as we walk through.


Gloria Riviera  47:51

We go through the passport checkpoint, the members of our team. We’re not all treated the same. Okay, so we’re walking up to one guy at the desk and we all have our passports out. Seems like a nice enough guy. Hi, I hand him my passport. I have some medications from a pharmacy some Claritin, some Arnica. He quickly glances inside my bag doesn’t route around. His inspection feels like less than three seconds. Thank you. Most of the team goes through no problem, even Ivan with his recording equipment and big backpack takes less than 20 seconds. Isara who didn’t buy anything and only has a small purse on them, doesn’t get off so easily. The agent ask them more questions.


Checkpoint  48:49

What do you bring in from Mexico?


Isara  48:51



Checkpoint  48:52

Where do you go to Mexico?


Isara  48:53

To go eat?


Checkpoint  48:56

Where are you from?


Isara  48:57

I am from San Diego, California.


Checkpoint  49:00

What brings you down here?


Isara  49:01

We’re just visiting friends. Yeah, sure got my, et me have like a camera on me.


Checkpoint  49:16

No medication or anything like that?


Gloria Riviera  49:19

Isara didn’t buy any medication. I am carrying all the medication we bought that day. But they do have a personal pillbox that they always carry.


Isara  49:28

I have like my Tylenol and like my Claritin. Yeah, sure. These are like enzymes for my eating, that’s my melatonin. My Claritin these are the same ones. These are just like little bit of more melatonin. That was like a SIM card.


Checkpoint  49:53

You’re all good.


Isara  49:55

All right, thank you.


Gloria Riviera  49:59

Once we’re back in our rental car safely on the US side. Isara says the experience was extremely frustrating.


Isara  50:06

It makes me very angry all the time. But I’m like I was just over it, it was really noisy, very like trying to play nice.


Gloria Riviera  50:12

I know you were being overly nice, I could hear you down the hall.


Isara  50:16

But it’s like that’s even more annoying that have to be so fake so I don’t get in trouble but that’s how they teach you but it’s like to be polite, that I’ve been very Mexican name, my full name and that password is so Mexican. Of course, they’re going to question me a million times.


Gloria Riviera  50:31

That extra level of stress and anxiety can be exhausting, Isara says. If crossing the border can be tense without having bought any medication, imagine how it might feel to cross the border with abortion bills. Like I said earlier, it’s a legal gray area. But knowing what I know now, if you are privileged enough to run under the radar, like I did, like Ivan did, it would have been easy to use that privilege for good. You could cross the border to Mexico, go into one of the first pharmacies you see and buy some pills eat lunch, then return to Texas and help others who can’t make the crossing. This is what some volunteers do for accompaniment networks in Mexico. They put their privilege to use. After the trip we tried to get an answer on the legality question from Customs and Border Protection. The agency who checked our passports and looked through Isara’s pillbox at the border. But they just directed us to the Food and Drug Administration. And the FDA didn’t immediately give us a direct answer because of an am quoting here. The high volume of inquiries we are receiving on this topic. It’s just not easy to get clear answers on what is and isn’t legal. In the Rio Grande Valley, being racially profiled, being singled out being fearful is common. Whether it’s at the border, an interior checkpoint or picking up your kid from school. It’s a way of life. In spite of these systems of oppression and constant fear mongering, people in the valley are figuring out ways to live and raise families with dignity. And people like Kathy and Nancy are working relentlessly to help them achieve that. With Roe overturned and abortion banned in Texas. Nancy says the canvas is wiped clean. And we’ve heard that from other activists too, that we can use this moment to build something better than Roe.


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  52:35

We can create this world where abortion restrictions will no longer exist where we will not have gestational limits where people can access abortion care whenever they want, whenever they need it for free. And it seems like an impossible world to dream up but think it’s something that we can actively work on.


Gloria Riviera  52:55

Nancy says Mexico is a good guide. Even before legalization, the country had systems in place where people could access abortions,


Nancy Cárdenas Peña  53:04

regardless of legality, people still had access to abortion care. And I think I want to envision the same thing where regardless of a court decision regardless of a legislator, regardless of a law, people will have access to abortion care because it is a human right.


Gloria Riviera  53:19

That’s what Nancy and others in this fight are organizing for to make what feels impossible possible in the Rio Grande Valley, which is their home and always will be.


Samantha Bee  53:33

Next week on The Defenders we talked to Jessica Valenti, founder of the daily newsletter abortion every day. She tells us how to stay engaged in the fight for abortion when it can all feel like too much.


Jessica Valenti  53:46

Their whole strategy is to overwhelm us into an action and anytime we don’t let that happen, it is a big fuck you.


Samantha Bee  53:54

We also talked to Renee Bracey Sherman of We Testify about why she helps people share their abortion stories.


Renee Bracey Sherman  54:01

If we talk about it more, you will know who you can go to and I will tell you, the best people you can go to for advice during an abortion is people who’ve already had them.


Samantha Bee  54:13

That’s next week on The Defenders.


Gloria Riviera  54:21

There’s more of The Defenders with Lemonada Premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content like extended interviews with organizers, abortion providers and experts. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts.



The Defenders is a production of Lemonada Media. We’re your hosts Gloria Riviera, and Samantha Bee. Muna Danish  is our supervising producer. Lisa Phu  is our producer. Isaura Aceves and Tony Williams are our associate producers. Ivan Kuraev and Natasha Jacobs are our audio engineers. Music by Hannis Brown with additional music by Natasha Jacobs. Story editing by Jackie Danziger, our VP of narrative content. Fact checking by Naomi Barr. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs. This series is supported by Charles and Lynn Schusterman, Family Philanthropies, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Levi Strauss foundation. Follow The Defenders wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.

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