Conflict & Justice

Meet the women who escorted Jane Doe to her abortion

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

Deniisse.jpg

Denisse Gonzalez waits to escort a patient from her car

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI

It was a cool, fall morning in southern Texas, a day not so different from any other in the small border city of McAllen. Jane Doe arrived at the abortion clinic early, with little fanfare, as if she was just another teenager — not someone who had quietly sparked an uproar across America.

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In the days before Oct. 25, it seemed everyone had an opinion about whether Jane Doe, as she’s referred to in court filings, should be allowed to have an abortion. The legal battle with the Trump administration had raged for weeks until a federal appeals court gave Jane Doe the go-ahead. She had the abortion on Wednesday. 

Not much is known about Jane Doe, except that she's 17 and from somewhere in Central America. She was detained in early September while crossing the southern border into the US, undocumented. Soon after her detention, Jane Doe had a routine physical. That's when she found out that she was several weeks pregnant, and she requested an abortion.

However, as a minor in Texas, Jane Doe needed parental consent — something she did not want to ask for, she said in a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union, which acted on her behalf. Had she stayed home, she would have fared no better: The region has some of the most stringent anti-abortion laws in the world.

Time was running out. Jane Doe was 15 weeks pregnant, and Texas does not allow abortions after week 20. Her court-appointed guardian, Rochelle Garza, complained that those in charge of Jane Doe “are refusing to transport, or allow anyone else to transport, Jane Doe to the health center to obtain counseling or the abortion procedure.”

In March of this year, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, in Washington, announced that federally funded shelters are barred from taking “any action that facilitates” abortion for unaccompanied minors without “direction and approval” from ORR Director Scott Lloyd, who has been vocally pro-life. Jane Doe was forced "to obtain counseling from a religiously affiliated crisis pregnancy center where I was forced to look at the sonogram," she said in the ACLU statement from Oct. 25. 

That's how Jane Doe, from a federally funded detention center in Brownsville, found herself at the intersection of two of the most divisive issues in America: illegal immigration and abortion. “People I don’t even know are trying to make me change my mind,” Jane Doe said in the statement. “I made my decision, and that is between me and God. Through all of this, I have never changed my mind. No one should be shamed for making the right decision for themselves. I would not tell any other girl in my situation what they should do. That decision is hers and hers alone.”

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court in Washington ordered the Trump administration to allow the girl to obtain an abortion. She would wind up in McAllen, Texas — the only place between Mexico City and San Antonio where you can get an abortion legally. For about 700 miles south, and 200 miles north, there simply is nowhere else to go.

Several weeks ago, while covering Hurricane Harvey, I drove down to Whole Woman’s Health for a separate piece about abortion. There, I met Denisse Gonzalez, one of the volunteers who would ultimately escort Jane Doe into the clinic. Gonzalez is used to confrontations but she couldn't have imagined then that this clinic would soon be thrust into a national story.

The drive from San Antonio to McAllen takes about five hours. It feels endless, with a tangled mess of roads to get out of the city. You might hit traffic going through Corpus Christi. Later, further south, the landscape becomes dry and bare and flat and empty. There’s a little town named Falfurrias, famous for being the home of a 19th-century Mexican healer, Don Pedro Jaramillo. And then nothing but desolate highway all the way to McAllen. It’s a bit eerie.

I pulled into the clinic’s parking lot, where, in the mornings, Gonzalez meets patients at their cars and walks them to the front entrance, shielding them from anti-abortion protesters and hecklers. She’s been doing this for about a year. There are usually two or three other volunteers on hand, as well. They put on rainbow-colored vests that read, “Clinic Escort,” and camp out under the shade, with a security guard. Around the lot, large signs advertise an “anti-abortion clinic” next door. Another one across the street shows a fetus. “It’s a baby!” the sign reads.

Sign

A competing sign over the parking lot of the clinic.

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI

On most days, shortly after Gonzalez and the rest of the volunteers arrive, another group of women shows up: anti-abortion activists. There are a handful of regulars, who come here every day — the same three or four faces, mostly middle-aged women and a few older men. They all declined to be interviewed for this story. Often church youth groups come here, too, plus larger religious organizations who campaign for weeks at a time.

In McAllen, the protesters are not allowed to set foot in the parking lot itself, so they stood on the other side of a waist-high picket fence. Meanwhile, the escorts drank coffee, ate some breakfast and chatted amongst themselves. It’s a scene that plays out similarly at countless abortion clinics across America, but I still marveled at their awkward choreography: The groups were close enough to reach over and touch one another, but they remained set apart.  

Yolanda and Mimi

Volunteer escort Mimi Martinez asks a regular protester to step further away from the clinic entrance.

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI

The standstill was broken as soon as anyone pulled into the parking lot. One young woman arrived all by herself. She was quiet but calm.

The escorts ran to the car and introduced themselves to the patient. At the same time, the protesters made their way to the picket fence, waving pamphlets and yelling.

“Please don’t do this. No tienes que hacer esto,” said one protester, who offered to take the woman for an ultrasound just down the block, instead.

Mimi Martinez, an escort like Gonzalez, pulled out a gray parasol to shield the patient’s face from bystanders. They both walked out of the parking lot, and up the street to the front entrance of the clinic, making small talk. The protesters followed closely behind, pleading, for as long as they could. The sidewalk between the parking lot and the door to the clinic is a kind of no-man's-land in between the trenches.

“You don’t have to do this m’ijita,” the protesters begged.

“I’ve seen many girlfriends devastated by their abortions. I care deeply about women,” Kyleen Wright, an anti-abortion activist of nearly 20 years, said recently, over the phone. “I am a single mom. I raised four boys as a single mom,” said Wright, the president of the Texans for Life Coalition, based in Arlington. She wasn't protesting, but I called her up to hear her thoughts. 

Kyleen Wright

Kyleen Wright, from the Texans for Life Coalition

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI

“I definitely see this as a feminist issue. The greatest way to hurt a woman, I believe, is to hurt her child, and that’s what abortion does. It’s not empowering to women at all; it’s a way to let men off the hook. It’s exploitative.” Although Wright says her coalition no longer stages protests, she supports “peaceful, prayerful protest. I’ve heard of people yelling ugly things at women — that disgusts me and hurts me. To me, every woman who chooses abortion is a failure on our part.”

Back at the McAllen clinic, the clash between protesters and escorts can often escalate into yelling. Gonzalez often busts out a boombox, to drown out the noise. When I was there, a few drivers passing by during their morning commute looked on with curiosity. On this otherwise inconspicuous street, there were women sporting rainbow vests armed with boomboxes and parasols. Some were yelling, crying and praying. Gonzalez blasted Beyoncé and the iconic Mexican crooner Paquita La Del Barrio, singing, “Filthy rat/Creeping animal/Scum of life/Shoddy monstrosity.” The song is intended for an unfaithful lover, but Gonzalez stared down a protester.

Many patients come to this clinic from Mexico. Abortion is illegal everywhere there except for Mexico City. Which is not to say there aren’t clandestine abortion clinics throughout the country. For those who can afford to come here from Mexico, this is a safe option.

For undocumented women seeking abortions in the Rio Grande Valley, this clinic is also important. Although the escorts don’t know the legal status of the patients, Gonzalez explains that for women without papers in the area, going to-and-fro is problematic. There are immigration checkpoints en route to the next abortion clinic, in San Antonio. It would be difficult for a woman without papers to make the long drive without getting stopped.

In between patients, Gonzalez, 32, sipped coffee and studied. She wants to be a certified nurse midwife. Gonzalez, herself, has four kids. “You know,” she told me, “I had a protester once ask me, ‘How do you sleep at night, being here?’ Like, how do I not sleep at night? I sleep at night knowing that I’m going to be here, helping. The days I don’t come, those are the days I don’t sleep at night. Those are the days I stay up worrying about who’s going to help.”

It isn’t always peaceful enough to study in the clinic parking lot. “It is scary. I’m not going to lie.” She says she’s been followed, threatened and pushed. “We do this because it’s a service that is needed. The police department and the city are absolutely of no help.” That’s why she and others come here day after day. “To comfort women, to let them know that they are supported, that they are OK. And you know, why we do this is just to protect people. I mean, who else is going to do it?”

Years ago, Gonzalez says, she would have looked down on the escorts. Her family is deeply conservative. Gonzalez says immigration was not often discussed growing up, but “when it was talked about, it was the quintessential conservative standpoint that those crossing the border are criminals. They do a lot of bad things; they’re just here to kill people, or sell drugs.” Gonzalez was raised a strict Catholic. The message was “birth control is so bad. It’s so evil. IUDs are the equivalent of getting an abortion. Even in the case of rape, you shouldn’t have an abortion. Because if you were raped, well, then the gift you now had is carrying that baby to term.”

Things changed when Gonzalez became pregnant at 19, and the father of her child was not supportive. “I had no car; I had no job. I was incredibly sick, to the point that I dropped down to 79 pounds.” Gonzalez had hyperemesis, which causes severe nausea, dehydration and weight loss during the pregnancy. She also had severe endometriosis, so she figured this might be her only chance to be a mom.

She was shocked when her community shunned her for having a child out of wedlock. “You know, going through all the sickness, going through all the hardship I went through, going through all the stigma ... it gave me that perspective, of what women actually go through” during pregnancy, and motherhood. Gonzalez had her first child in Brownsville, Texas. Where Jane Doe is being held.

In the last week or so, Gonzalez and the other escorts say they’ve found themselves talking a lot about Jane Doe.

“I thought about her the whole time [she was in the news],” said Martinez, 27. Raised in a Pentecostal family, Martinez says she, too, was pro-life when she was younger. Martinez is adopted and, in family discussions, the point that was often brought up was, what if her own mother had chosen to abort her? As Martinez got older, she changed her mind.

Life sign

Mimi Martinez rests as an anti-abortion activist stands by.

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI

She says what struck her about the Jane Doe case is that many of those protesting the young woman’s abortion request are also staunchly anti-immigration. So, the message is: “‘Even though I may not approve of you being here, and I may not approve of you having a child in the United States, I feel like you need to keep this child. Yet I’m not going to provide any services. And I’m probably going to send you back to your country, where you are obviously running from something. Otherwise, why would you be here, in the United States?’ They are not pro-that-girl’s-life. They are not pro-immigrants’ lives. They are just anti-choice.”

Jane Doe's case stirred a lot of people. On Wednesday, in a statement on his webpage, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that he found her decision tragic and that it could have been avoided.

Pro-life activist Kyleen Wright says she felt compassion for Jane Doe, despite the fact that the teen chose to have an abortion. “You have a 17-year-old girl — and 17-year-olds are girls — who is in a foreign country, doesn’t speak the language, and is surrounded apparently [by people] who have one agenda,” she laments. It must have been confusing for Jane Doe. “I have to say, from being pregnant myself, I hated being pregnant. I loved the end result but I was sick and miserable and out of my mind with emotion. I remember with my first pregnancy, I was sick and miserable. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. And I thought, ‘I have an income and a home and a husband, what about these girls who don’t?’”

Still, Wright, like many other anti-abortion activists, is concerned that this case may send the message that America is an abortion haven for immigrants from countries where the procedure is illegal. “I certainly think that’s a possibility, and we don’t want to see that. She came from a country where abortion was illegal, and that made it more of a concern to me, yes. I think a fundamental truth is you get what you reward. I don’t think [Jane Doe] made the best decision. Even from a point of citizenship, it probably would have helped her case to be the mother of a child born on US soil. But we do what we can. We hope for the best. Pray for the best. I wish she had had more support.”

Amid all of the controversy surrounding Jane Doe and her pregnancy, one voice was conspicuously absent — Jane Doe’s. Who knows what she was thinking during that long drive from Brownsville to McAllen or when she arrived at the clinic, her first time outside the detention center. She was in America. A group of women approached her, some to escort her, others to try to change her mind.

All we know is what she said in writing: “I’m a 17-year-old girl that came to this country to make a better life for myself. My journey wasn’t easy, but I came here with hope in my heart to build a life I can be proud of,” adding, “I am not ready to be a parent.” 

After her appointment at the McAllen clinic, the teen was taken back into detention. What's ahead for her is unclear — as is the plight of other undocumented women who may find themselves in a similar predicament.