Laura Molinar, founder of Sueños Sin Fronteras, in San Antonio on Nov. 3, 2021. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.

Laura Molinar sounds very calm for someone expecting to be sued.

Her San Antonio-based organization, Sueños Sin Fronteras de Tejas, offers reproductive health education and assistance to asylum-seeking and undocumented women — including information and assistance for those seeking abortion.

Under Senate Bill 8, Texas’ new abortion law, if that education or assistance is perceived as “aiding and abetting” a person in obtaining an abortion, private citizens can sue them for up to $10,000.

“We’re going to do whatever we have to do to support someone in this decision,” Molinar said. “These are the laws, but these are things we believe in and what our organization is founded on.”

Molinar does what she does because she’s seen the desperation of women pregnant by their abusers and running out of options to build a safe and secure life.

So, no, she’s not going to stop talking about abortion or offering to assist those who want it — whether that means funding and arranging travel out of state or finding a way to get abortion medications to them.

Seeing the need

In 2018, Molinar and Isabel Ramos Zepeda started the health and reproductive justice collective Sueños Sin Fronteras, which translates to “dreams without borders,” to address the many forces they saw working against the women on the Texas-Mexico border.

It’s sexual violence that leads many to flee in the first place, but for them and others, the journey to safety is anything but safe.

In a May 2017 report, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders surveyed patients at the clinics it supports throughout Mexico. One-third of the women surveyed had been sexually abused on their journey from Central America, and of the 166 sexual abuse survivors surveyed, 60 percent had been raped.

Those were the same stories of rape, extortion and assault Molinar heard while volunteering at a clinic at a Catholic Charities respite center in McAllen in the summer of 2018. Some of the immigrants explicitly asked for pregnancy tests and contraception.

Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley does offer pregnancy support, but the Catholic Church has firm beliefs about prohibiting abortion and contraception. Molinar grew up Catholic, so she knew this. She remembered her youth group protesting at abortion clinics. She knew going into her volunteer work that she would not be able to offer birth control, emergency contraception or advice about accessing abortion while in the clinic.

But the panic in their voices stuck with her. “What we saw was very eye-opening,” she said.

That experience led her and Ramos Zepeda in 2018 to start Sueños Sin Fronteras, an independent organization that would explicitly offer asylum-seekers and undocumented women a full array of support, whatever their reproductive choices.

To be clear, many of the women helped by Sueños Sin Fronteras keep their babies, Molinar said. That’s their choice, she said, and she wants them to have as much agency and support in it as possible. Like other organizations, including those that do not support abortion, Sueños Sin Fronteras will help asylum-seekers and undocumented women get to safety in emergency situations and provide them with basic supplies, food, diapers, formula and housing assistance.

That part of their work will not change under SB 8, which prohibits almost all abortions. But knowing how broadly the “aiding and abetting” portion of the law could be applied — even rideshare companies are preparing for potential lawsuits — they have to be aware of new risks, Molinar said, and that’s why Sueños Sin Fronteras is preparing to launch a legal defense fund.

Even if only one suit is filed, the threat of being sued works to “isolate people by scaring their support system,” said Paula Saldaña, field coordinator with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, a national education and advocacy organization based in New York City that has been building a network of activists in the Rio Grande Valley since 2007.

The Latina Institute has not stopped providing information to women in the Rio Grande Valley and they are also holding rallies and protests, in part to remind women they are not alone. Undocumented women in the RGV are especially isolated, because Customs and Border Protection checkpoints stand between them and entry points to New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana, which have less restrictive abortion laws.

Isolation, in the case of unplanned pregnancy, can be dangerous. “When a person decides to have this procedure, it’s very hard to change their mind,” Saldaña said. Some abortion advocates have raised concerns about the return of back-alley abortions or home remedies, but experts say that doesn’t have to be the case if women know they have other options.

Texas-based field staff do not advise women about abortion options, for fear of being sued, a spokesperson for the organization said, but the Latina Institute’s social media is promoting the message that abortion doesn’t need to be legal to be safe. If people can get access to the internet, they can, virtually, cross state lines.

Taking matters into their own hands

Already “whisper networks” and telemedicine providers in the U.S. and other countries, including overseas pharmacies, have emerged to get abortion pills into the hands of Texans who are not able to get them through mainstream service.

Medical abortion, also called medicated abortion, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use through the 10th week of pregnancy to induce an abortion without surgery. It is different from emergency contraception medication like Plan B, which is taken within three days of sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy. Emergency contraception is still legal in Texas.

In addition to applicable restrictions under SB 8, another law, Texas’s 2021 Senate Bill 4, requires a physician to be present to administer the pills and explicitly prohibits mail or courier delivery inside the state, as well as the use of medical abortion after the seventh week of pregnancy.

“My heart goes out to anyone in Texas who has an unplanned pregnancy right now and wants to terminate,” said Elisa Wells, co-founder and co-director of the nonprofit organization Plan C. “The barriers are seemingly insurmountable.”

Plan C keeps a running list of telemedicine providers and pharmacies able to ship the pills anywhere, including Texas. No one option is perfect — sometimes the drugs can take weeks to ship, and some of the telemedicine providers must be paid out of pocket — but it is easier for many to access than an out-of-state clinic, Wells said.

For those who can get the medication, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders created a series of online videos as a guide for self-managed abortions.

Sueños Sin Fronteras will share information about self-managed medical abortion with their clients, Molinar said, and assist in any way necessary, including help securing telemedicine appointments and the funds to pay for them.

But even though she wants to be vocal enough to let immigrant and undocumented women know Sueños Sin Fronteras will help, talking to undocumented and immigrant women about abortion has never been something Sueños Sin Fronteras did loudly.

“Not an easy thing”

Outreach to the immigrant and undocumented community is not a matter of a cute infographic on social media and “shouting your abortion,” Molinar said, in reference to the popular social media movement started by three white women in the Seattle area as an effort to destigmatize elective abortion.

“We have to think about the cultural terrain and context that we live under,” Molinar said.

Celebrating abortion as a liberating personal freedom is alienating in the social and religious context of most immigrant families, she said. When talking with the women who come to her for help, Molinar treats their decision with the same gravity she treated her own unplanned pregnancy — as a matter of life and death.

While she was never undocumented, Molinar said, she has been poor, economically dependent on a violent partner, unsure where she would live or how she would support herself if she left. Her partner didn’t want her to have the baby, and abusers often grow more violent when their partners are pregnant. She didn’t want to have an abortion — her Catholic upbringing made it difficult to even consider — but if she had the baby, she felt, “it would cost me my life.”

It’s Molinar’s own story that helps inform the Sueños Sin Fronteras mission. The group doesn’t work with women just in the first moments they cross the border. They also work with undocumented women already living in Texas, especially those needing to flee domestic violence.

Independent housing and stable income are difficult to get for people who start with nothing and cannot legally work in the United States. Sexual and reproductive health care — including reliable birth control — is mostly unavailable for those without health insurance.

The National Organization for Women reported that nearly half of all immigrant and undocumented women experience violence from an intimate partner, almost three times the national average. Whether income or legal status prevents them from leaving an abusive partner, unwanted pregnancy is a step in the wrong direction: Researchers have found that women who wanted an abortion but were denied the procedure were more likely to stay with their abusive partners.

Molinar knows the people Sueños Sin Fronteras encounters are in even tighter spots, economically, legally and culturally. That’s why both discretion and determination are so important to her.

“My abortion saved my life,” Molinar said, “But it’s not an easy thing.”

Bekah McNeel is a San Antonio-based freelance writer. If you have feedback or a tip related to this story, email editors@texastribune.org.

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