A Reproductive-Rights Activist Explains the Realities of Abortion for Latina Women

With the Supreme Court seemingly inching closer to overturning Roe v. Wade, many Americans are trying to imagine a future in which abortion is a crime in roughly half the country. How will women cope with unwanted pregnancies? What will the public-health consequences be? All signs point to a fractured nation, in which barriers to abortion exacerbate existing inequities. But, if you talk to reproductive-rights advocates, they’ll tell you that, to some extent, that America already exists. While abortion is technically constitutionally protected, in practical terms, many women have a hard time accessing the procedure, owing to restrictive local laws, prohibitive costs, and social stigma. That’s especially true for immigrants, the poor, and those living in marginalized communities.

Elizabeth Estrada.Photograph by Linangely Perez 

Last week, I spoke with Elizabeth Estrada, the New York field and advocacy manager at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, an organization that fights for equal access to reproductive health for Latino communities. According to a recent Pew survey, fifty-eight per cent of Hispanic adults think that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, which is just slightly less than the general population. Still, Estrada often works with women who are seeking abortions against the will of their families, their peers, and their church.

Estrada, a Mexican immigrant, migrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was four. Her family settled in a suburb of Atlanta, where Estrada lived until she was twenty-seven. At the age of twenty-one, she got an abortion in Georgia, an experience that propelled her into activism. When she moved to New York, in 2014, she found that Latinas face many practical and social obstacles that prevent them from getting abortions, even in a state with progressive laws. She’s worried about the dystopian future ahead of us, which certain states, such as Texas and Georgia, are already speeding toward, but she’s also concerned about the status quo, in which many Americans have a “right” to something that they are unable to access.

“In 2004, I was twenty-one years old, living with my parents in suburban Georgia. I had my first professional gig: an entry-level job as a loan processor at my aunt’s mortgage company. This was around the time of the housing bubble—Georgia being one of the leading states in fraudulent lending—so I was really busy! I was single, but I had been dating this guy casually. And one night, we had sex and didn’t use a condom. For education reasons, I think it’s important for me to get into the specifics of what happened. The guy didn’t finish—as in, he didn’t ejaculate. I had taken sex ed at school, but it taught me nothing, because, in Georgia, it’s all abstinence-based. So I didn’t know there could still be sperm in preëjaculate, and I was really shocked when I ended up getting pregnant. And the guy was a total asshole about it, saying, ‘That’s not possible. Are you sure it’s even mine?’

“I had thought about this before—what would happen if I got pregnant. And I had said to a friend, ‘I’d definitely get an abortion.’ But when the time came, I struggled with the decision. It was not easy. There was a lot of shame, a lot of judging myself. Thinking, How could I be so stupid? Why didn’t I use protection? All the other times, we used it. Why not this time?

“I needed to find information about how to get an abortion. I didn’t feel that I could tell my mom. I went to the Internet. Back then, it was Ask Jeeves. That turned up nothing. I had to pick up the literal Yellow Pages and find the closest clinic. It turned out to be in midtown Atlanta, forty-five minutes away from where I lived, in Alpharetta. So I call and make the appointment, and they tell me that I have to bring someone with me, because I’ll be under anesthesia. The whole process would take so long—like six hours, with the wait and the drive—that I actually had to ask two friends to accompany me in shifts. So I have one of my friends take me there and stay for the first three hours, and then another friend to do the next three hours and take me home.

“Abortion clinics in Georgia were very low-profile for security reasons. There was no name or sign outside the clinic. The windows were blacked out, and there was a cop at the front door. You had to ring the bell and look into a camera and say your name and date of birth. Then the cop lets you in, and you go to the window and you pay. To this day, I still remember I had to pay five hundred and thirty-five dollars out of pocket. I had health insurance, but abortion was not covered, as is often the case. And, as I said, the guy was a total asshole and didn’t offer to help pay.

“I went back into the waiting area. And it was amazing, the volume of people that were in there, waiting for procedures. Then I was asked to go to the surgical area. There were people on gurneys, coming out of surgery. And what I remember is, there was such silence. Nobody wanted to talk.

“When it was my turn, I went back into the surgical area. They talked to me about the procedure and they offered counselling afterward. I told them, ‘Yes, I’d love to talk to somebody afterwards.’ They did an ultrasound. Thankfully, they did not ask me if I wanted to look at the ultrasound—some states require medical staff to ask people to look at the ultrasounds. That’s an ‘anti-’ strategy to try and make them change their minds. So then I get the procedure. I was under anesthesia for like fifteen minutes, twenty minutes at most. And when I came to, I immediately started crying. I just think that probably the drugs made me feel overwhelmed.

“When I woke up, the nurse told me something like, ‘O.K., I’ll just let you sit here, and then when you’re ready, you can get up and get dressed.’ I had said before that I wanted counselling, but no one else came to talk to me. And then I dressed, left the surgical area. I go outside. My friend’s waiting for me, and I’m crying, and my friend hugs me, and we start to leave. Something that I really remember is that the cop, this older gentleman, just put his hand on my shoulder, just as a sign of compassion, to say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be O.K.’ The people in the clinic were all women, but they didn’t have the best bedside manner. But that cop, who was a man, treated me with compassion, and it really meant something.

“I remember that moment to this day, because my first abortion activated me. It took a year for me to reflect on what had happened, and be O.K. with the decision that I had made. And, after a while, I realized that there was something about the experience that made me angry. It was the silence that pissed me off. It was the blacking out of the windows that pissed me off. It shouldn’t be this way. This was a regular procedure. It took twenty minutes. Why is this such a stigmatized issue? Why are people judging me for making private health decisions?

“I started seeking spaces where I could talk about it, and that’s when I found the Feminist Women’s Health Center, in Atlanta, which is also an abortion clinic that does community education. I went to meetings at the Feminist Women’s Health Center and then I started volunteering with them. I eventually became one of their promotoras, a sexual- and reproductive-health worker for the Latino community. The model is that community members get certified to educate their community, because statistics show that people learn more when they’re in a safe space, as opposed to from someone outside coming in and saying, ‘Hey, you should use a condom. Here’s how to use it.’ Rather, it’s a person from your community saying, ‘Here’s my experience. This is what I know. Let me share my knowledge with you.’

“Before my abortion, I was political, but I was into immigration politics. I was marching and doing direct actions. But I noticed that, in the immigrant-justice world, we weren’t talking feminism, even though the majority of the volunteers and the majority of people who were impacted negatively by anti-immigrant laws and the migrant crisis were women. When you have to flee a country and you have to cross the border, it’s women who are being raped, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted.

“In my family, I joke about how I’m the feminist jodona—a way to translate it would kind of be like ‘feminist killjoy.’ Women in my generation of immigrant Latinas, or first-generation Latinas here in New York and across the United States, are often tasked with educating our families. We do that at the dinner table, at Christmas or Thanksgiving. We’re the ones saying to our family members, ‘No, Dad, that’s sexist.’ We do that when we’re watching TV and see something racist or sexist or homophobic. We’re the ones having to break those cycles by informing the people we love that something is wrong, and that the way they look at something like racism or sexism or access to abortion should be challenged.

“Now I’m the New York field and advocacy manager for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. I’ve lived for the past seven years in the northwest Bronx. We work with activists throughout the state to help inform, train, organize, and mobilize our communities, on issues that impact our families and our lives.

“Even though I’m in a blue state now, working in the Bronx, you see how there are barriers to abortion access. For one thing, there are so many crisis-pregnancy centers—centers run by anti-abortion groups that are designed to resemble abortion clinics. A lot of people are not medically literate, especially people who don’t speak English as a first language, and that can make them more likely to be deceived by these fake clinics.

“Abortion stigma also continues to be a barrier—especially in the Bronx, which has a high Latino population, as well as Black, Indigenous, and people of color. You have faith leaders that preach against abortion and birth control. A lot of people don’t know that they have access to abortion, because they are dissuaded or misinformed by the people closest to them—their friends, their families, their loved ones. So, bad information, misinformation, is a barrier. And then there are structural barriers. When you think about folks in the Latinx community who may work multiple jobs, they don’t have paid leave. They lack transportation. Making a trip to an abortion provider is already tough. Making another trip, after they’ve been deceived by—or lured to—a fake clinic, may be impossible. And then there’s child care—because also keep in mind that the majority of people who have abortions are already parents.