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In Texas, Strict Laws On Clinics Drive Demand For Abortion Pill


Women who seek an abortion in Texas have slightly more choice these days. In March, the Food and Drug Administration simplified rules on abortion medication. Texas is deeply conservative with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. But as NPR's John Burnett reports, there has been a sharp increase in women choosing nonsurgical abortion.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The waiting room at Whole Woman's Health Clinic in San Antonio has big, black easy chairs and soothing mauve walls hung with feminist posters. A young woman who asked to be identified by her initials, H.D., says she's here to terminate a seven-week presidency. Like more and more women in Texas, she's asking for a small, white tablet.

H D: The reason that I would choose the pill versus the surgical procedure is the comfort of your home without you having to deal with coming to the office and then being hounded outside by, you know, protestors or what have you. And a lot of times you don't want too many people knowing what's going on. With the pill, I feel like it's more kind of to yourself.

BURNETT: Texas is hostile territory for abortion rights. In 2013, the GOP-controlled State House passed a sweeping bill that medical experts say is unnecessary. It imposed new restrictions on surgical and medical abortions. Believing the FDA rules on abortion pills were plenty strict, lawmakers told women to start following the federal protocol. It worked. Use of the abortion drug in Texas fell sharply. Then

in late March, the federal agency relaxed its rules, effectively giving women an end run around the legislature's anti-abortion posture. The new FDA label on abortion medication requires fewer doctor visits, meaning women can take most of the abortion pills at home. The dosage is lower, and they can take the medication for a pregnancy of up to 10 weeks. Before, it was seven weeks.

The response was immediate. Whole Woman's Health, which has three Texas abortion clinics, has seen requests for the abortion bill jump from 1 in 10 patients to more than half of all of its patients. Planned Parenthood has noted a of four-fold increase in women seeking the abortion drug at its five clinics in Texas. Rachel Bergstrom-Carlson manages the Planned Parenthood clinic in Austin.

RACHEL BERGSTROM-CARLSON: Many women felt that it was a more natural feeling, a more personal experience that didn't have to be so clinical and surgical. They were in their home. They were in charge of their own bodies.

BURNETT: Medication abortion is a combination of two pills, Mifepristone and Misoprostol, that stop a pregnancy and induce a miscarriage. Taken together, the pills have a 95 percent success rate. The abortion pill became legal in the United States in 2000. Today in the U.S., just over a third of women who get abortions in the first nine weeks use medication according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit that studies abortion issues.

And the number is climbing. Researchers say more women ask for it, and more abortion providers offer it. To abortion foes, both procedures are equally bad. On a recent weeknight, Rosita Rodriguez stands with a group of Catholic women holding a vigil outside an abortion clinic in McAllen.

ROSITA RODRIGUEZ: We're against abortion in any way. We are against the pill, and we are against everything that goes against the moment of conception. That's why we're praying.

BURNETT: The new FDA guidelines are a rare bit of good news embattled abortion rights advocates in Texas, but it's far from a cause for celebration, says Janet Crepps. She's senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York.

JANET CREPPS: This is definitely a positive step for women - the FDA label change and the increased availability of medication abortion. But it's not addressing the root problem, which is all of the unnecessary regulations that are closing clinics and placing obstacles in the path of women seeking abortions.

BURNETT: Both sides are now watching the Supreme Court, awaiting a landmark ruling on the constitutionality of Texas' controversial anti-abortion law that's expected this month. Observers say whether the justices strike down the law or uphold it will dramatically affect access to both types of abortion - medication and surgical. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, John reports on the growing number of women crossing the border into Mexico to buy pills for do-it-yourself abortions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.