Abortion pills are available without a prescription in some Mexican pharmacies. : NPR

One of two abortion drugs available without a prescription in some Mexican pharmacies.

John Burnett/NPR

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John Burnett/NPR

One of two abortion drugs available without a prescription in some Mexican pharmacies.

John Burnett/NPR

Since Texas passed a tough anti-abortion law in September, more women along the southern border are going to unregulated pharmacies in Mexico to get abortion pills. Border health professionals fear Mexican pharmacies have become a last resort for some women. Observers say it’s a sign of what will happen if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade.

The main street of Nuevo Progreso, Mexico—just across the lazy Rio Grande from Weslaco, Texas—is a chaotic border bazaar that caters to American day-trippers looking for bargains and the exotic. The street is packed with businesses selling prescription eyeglasses, dental care, switchblades, tequila shots, statues of ghoulish drug saints, and over-the-counter drugs.

You can buy many drugs in Mexican pharmacies without a prescription, including the pills that have transformed the way women end their pregnancies. Today, more than half of all abortions in the United States are performed by what is called a medical abortion, as opposed to a traditional surgical abortion.

A drug, mifepristone, blocks the hormone necessary for the continuation of a pregnancy; the other drug, misoprostol, causes cramping and bleeding to empty the uterus. The FDA has approved them as safe and effective in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Nuevo Progreso pharmacies have noticed a large increase in certain customers.

“You should see how many girls come to try to get an abortion,” says Walter Garza, a teller at Garcia Pharmacy. “A lot. Crazy.”

Garza says the combination of two pills — along with her consultation on how to use them — costs $400. “And I know they’re going to get more expensive with all the girls coming to buy them,” he says. But Gaza is neither a doctor nor a pharmacist. When asked where he gets his medical information, he laughs: “A doctor told me.”

Misoprostol, which is also prescribed to prevent stomach ulcers, is sold freely over the counter. He sells mifepristone, the proprietary abortion drug, under the counter. But Garza says he doesn’t like selling either.

“I am Catholic and this goes against my religion,” he says. “But business is business. You know what I mean ? I must eat.

A 9-month-old Texas law — considered the most restrictive in the nation — virtually bans abortion as soon as the fetal heartbeat is detected, usually at six weeks. There is no exception for rape or incest. Abortion rights advocates say this is particularly relevant on the border where undocumented women are often sexually assaulted on their journey north. An undocumented woman who becomes pregnant cannot travel past Border Patrol checkpoints on the highways leading into the Rio Grande Valley.

“They’re stuck in the valley with no access to abortion,” says Carla Angulo-Pasel, a political scientist and assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

On the other hand, a woman documented in the Rio Grande Valley has more options. If she wants to get to an abortion clinic with the fewest restrictions, she has to drive 14 hours to Las Cruces, New Mexico. She could order abortion pills from a pharmacy abroad, say in India, who would mail them to her. Offshore pharmacies are beyond the reach of Texas laws, where doctors are prohibited from prescribing a medical abortion after detecting the heartbeat of the fetus.

Or she can drive half an hour to the border and visit a Mexican pharmacy. It’s no different than an American bringing Viagra or Xanax back from Mexico across the border.

Planned Parenthood and other organizations have posted detailed information online about how to take abortion pills and what to expect. But some unsuspecting customers may rely on a Mexican pharmacy for their information.

“And the problem with that, of course, becomes the regulatory aspect,” says Angulo-Pasel. “We don’t know if these drugs have been approved by the FDA. And then you have the problem that you don’t even need a prescription, so there’s no real medical care for these women. That’s just out of desperation.”

There can be serious complications, says Dr. Roberto Diaz-Gonzalez, obstetrician-gynecologist at Brownsville Community Health Center.

“Probably the most common complication with the drug will be incomplete abortion,” he says. “That means not all the tissue comes out. If the patient doesn’t seek care, it can lead to infection.”

Since Texas’ anti-abortion law took effect, some women in the Rio Grande Valley say they’ve had a taste of a job-Deer world.

“It’s had a chilling effect on people trying to get abortion care,” says Nancy Cardenas Pena, Texas state director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.

But activists resisted.

“People in red states still deserve access to abortion care, so we will continue to fight every step of the way in areas like the Rio Grande Valley,” she says.

She offers two examples of repelling.

When the city of Edinburgh tried to declare itself a ‘sanctuary for unborn children’ last summer, after hours of public comment against the ordinance, it came to nothing. And last month, when a 26-year-old woman was arrested and jailed for murder in Rio Grande City for having a “self-induced” abortion, the abortion rights community sprang into action to get his release. Eventually, the charges were dropped.

Said Cardenas Pena: “We had a very good win that day.”

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