DALLAS — The sky was still dark when the women began to gather at the First Unitarian Church of Dallas.
They arrived one by one and were shepherded from the parking lot to a meeting area inside the church by volunteers from the congregation, each of whom had spent days preparing for this moment.
“I’m here to help you,” said one volunteer, offering her hand to a woman getting out of a car. “I’ve been in your shoes before.”
It was early, just after 5 a.m. The streets were deserted, save for the few cars headed toward the church.
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Whether it was the early hour or anticipation for the journey ahead, the women were quiet as they waited for the rest of their travel companions to arrive. Some nervously bounced their knees under a table while others rested their heads on their arms, avoiding eye contact with the circling volunteers who offered snacks and cups of juice.
When the group boarded a bus bound for the airport, there were 15 travelers, plus a mother accompanying her daughter.
Besides the familial pair, none of the women who gathered at the church knew any of the others. They were different ages and ethnicities, with varied personal backgrounds and professional histories. Some were college students, while others owned businesses or were newly unemployed. Several were parents, with young children and teenagers at home. Many of the women were from Dallas, but others hailed from farther reaches of the state, and at least one had traveled to the church from Oklahoma.
But they all had at least one thing in common: Each was more than six weeks pregnant and could not have a legal abortion in Texas.
“My biggest fear in life is to not have any options, and I feel like somebody who doesn’t even know me took my options away from me, and it makes me furious,” Amber, 26, said in an interview.
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When her doctor at the Southwestern Women’s Surgical Center in Dallas told Amber she could not have the abortion she sought, she started to cry.
“I was a couple days after what the law said I would have to be to get an abortion,” she said. “That made me even more upset because, dang, a couple days?”
She thought of her future, and the life she was building for herself. She thought about the frequent doctor’s appointments a pregnancy would entail and her lack of health insurance, after aging out of coverage under her parents’ plan. She thought about the recent mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, where 19 children were killed, and what dangers a future with a child might entail.
Then, her doctor said there was one spot left in a travel program facilitated by a local church, a nonprofit and abortion funds in Texas that would allow her to travel with a group of women from Dallas to New Mexico to have legal abortions — free of charge.
“I think we all low-key thought we were going to get kidnapped,” she said, speaking of her fellow travelers. “But what other choice did I have?”
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The Rev. Daniel Kanter knew that fear would be a possibility.
He had been organizing travel programs for women seeking abortions since December, offering free transportation and medical appointments to patients with incomes under the federal poverty line through a partnership with the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
In a meeting with volunteers four days before the departure of Amber’s group, Kanter warned that the women participating in the program are often fearful when they arrive, worried about the law in Texas and worried about the program itself.
“No one owes us anything; not their story, not their thanks, not their acknowledgement and not their smile,” Kanter said, addressing the group of volunteers. “In some cases, we’re dealing with people who carry trauma and are primed not to trust us, so we need to present our most direct and gentle selves.”
He reiterated that the program is legal for now, as long as abortion remains legal in New Mexico and lawmakers in Texas don’t attempt to restrict residents’ ability to travel elsewhere for a procedure.
Texas lawmakers have all but banned abortion, prohibiting the procedure at six weeks of pregnancy, before most people know they are pregnant. In the past nine months, women have been forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term or cross state lines to have a legal abortion. Their options to go elsewhere narrowed last month, when the Oklahoma Legislature banned abortion with few exceptions in that state.
If the U.S. Supreme Court decides to overturn Roe v. Wade and end nearly 50 years of federal constitutional protections for abortion, people with unwanted pregnancies will face similar dilemmas in broad swaths of the country.
Justices are considering a challenge to a 10-week abortion ban in Mississippi that would allow the court’s conservative majority to reverse protections for abortion and return the issue to state legislatures. A ruling is expected by the end of this month. Twenty-six states are poised to completely ban or severely restrict access to abortion if the court allows, including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida in the South.
Kanter said he plans to continue with his travel program for as long as he is able. He anticipates that demand will grow if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The program runs through a partnership with Kanter’s church, the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas and its sister clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., Southwestern Women’s Options.
The partnership was built on the foundation of a multifaith chaplaincy program Kanter started with the Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas six years ago. Different religious leaders would spend time at the clinic, offering counseling to patients and a space to share their stories as they made decisions about their future.
Religious organizations are often associated with the anti-abortion movement, but not all people of faith share that perspective, Kanter said. His own church has long-standing ties to the abortion rights movement dating back to 1973, when Roe v. Wade was argued.
“It’s important for people to be reminded that not all their pastors, not all their preachers, not all their rabbis are against them,” Kanter said in an interview. “It’s a disconnect to be sitting in a church like this and to have had an abortion and to hear your pastor telling you that you are somehow a sinner or are unredeemable. Our religions should be talking about how we love each other. That’s the core of all religion, and pastors who perpetuate that shame are creating really a kind of emotional violence against the women in their congregations.”
When the abortion law known as Senate Bill 8 went into effect in Texas, the chaplaincy program morphed into a travel program. People travel to the clinic in Dallas to determine how far along their pregnancy might be. If they are past six weeks of pregnancy, want to have an abortion and meet certain income requirements, they’re directed to Kanter’s program.
“These are the poorest people in our communities,” Kanter said. “They just don’t have the resources to navigate themselves to get an abortion in another state, and they don’t have the resources to carry that prenate to birth.”
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When the group landed in New Mexico, more volunteers were waiting in their cars outside the airport.
About half of the women were taken directly to the clinic, where most were scheduled to receive surgical abortions. The others weren’t due at the clinic until the afternoon, when they would receive the first dose of their medication abortion regimen.
Volunteers drove the second group to the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s headquarters in downtown Albuquerque, where rooms were set up in anticipation of their arrival. In the main gathering space, a table was piled high with snacks and breakfast foods, alongside a fully stocked fridge with sodas and other drinks. Another table held jigsaw puzzles, activity books and coloring pages to help pass the time.
There were black office chairs spread throughout the space, including in a dimly lit room toward the back of the office, where a television was playing on low volume. As the women took their seats, they started to speak with one another, discussing their experiences with morning sickness, the plane ride and details about their lives.
“I feel like we were all kind of quiet and just not feeling good, but we all started talking to each other and realizing that we’re going through the same things, kind of,” said Desiree, 22. “It’s like you’re not alone.”
Desiree found out she was pregnant the same day she learned that she would be able to return to college in the fall, and she immediately started to panic. She pulled out her phone and called multiple clinics and crisis pregnancy centers in her area, trying to get an appointment for a sonogram.
She found herself at a crisis pregnancy center, which promotes alternatives to abortion, where she was told she was too early in her pregnancy to have a sonogram. But a week later, she visited the Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas and learned that this was not the case. In fact, a sonogram revealed that she was too far along to have an abortion in Texas.
“I probably could have gotten a sonogram done earlier, and I could have avoided all of this,” she said. “I was really hard on myself because I was like, ‘I waited too late.’ I should have been more on it and doing better research on the clinics I was going to.”
She grew up the oldest of six children, and their parents were in and out of their lives, leaving many child care duties to Desiree and her brother. The experience gave her a deep appreciation for the responsibility of parenthood and made her question whether she wanted children of her own.
When she learned about the travel program, Desiree said she signed up immediately, even though she was apprehensive about traveling with a group of strangers to have an abortion.
“I know my other options were going to be harder,” she said.
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Keyara, 25, felt the same way. She already had three children at home — a 5-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 6-month-old — and the prospect of trying to coordinate her own travel to another state to have an abortion was daunting.
But the prospect of having a fourth child felt impossible.
“I didn’t want to have two children under the age of 1 again,” she said. “I love my children, but I just don’t want to have to deal with having the worry of feeding another mouth with the shortage of Similac and having to deal with that kind of stress.”
When Keyara found out she was pregnant with her second child, months after giving birth to her first, she was homeless and experiencing domestic violence in her relationship. She went to a clinic in the hopes of having an abortion, but she couldn’t pull together enough money and decided to continue her pregnancy.
This time, she has a roof over her head and a small support network of close relations who help care for her young children. But she still did not want to have another child.
“I probably would have been one of those girls who probably tried to self-abort, just because I know at this very state that I am not prepared to have a fourth one,” Keyara said.
She had heard stories about friends of friends who tried to end their pregnancies by drinking a cap of bleach or taking a large dose of vitamin C. She had also seen message boards online of people talking about different strategies for ending pregnancies that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“Obviously, if it wasn’t something serious, a woman wouldn’t be risking her life to take something away that she knows at the moment she either can’t take care of, can’t provide for or she’s just not ready to be a mother yet,” she said. “It’s your life. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready, and no one should force you to be ready.”
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Road to recovery
As the second group of women made the trip from the coalition’s office to the clinic, the first group started to return from the morning appointments.
Some of the women were nauseated and went to lie down in a private room down the hall from the main gathering space. The lights there were off, and instrumental meditation music played as they found places to relax on yoga mats, cushions and an exercise ball.
Next door, a volunteer offered massage treatments to each returning patient. She taped up a large poster board in the hallway, encouraging women to write their names and reserve a time slot.
In another room, three women gathered around a table to eat lunch after returning from medication abortion appointments at the clinic earlier in the day.
Amber, Desiree and D.A., 22, nibbled on sandwiches and swapped stories about their lives.
D.A., a college student, said she was worried about managing her recovery when she returned home. She had kept her pregnancy and subsequent abortion a secret from her parents, and she struggled to find support from her friends.
“I told my best friend yesterday, and she acted like it was fine, and then later on I asked if they could stay with me over the weekend, and she told me that she’s not comfortable because it’s a life and I’m hiding it from my parents,” she said. “Are you saying that’s more important to you than being with me while I’m going through this? Even though I felt confident about my decision because I know this is what I needed to do, I began to feel so emotionally weary.”
Amber agreed and said her mental health has suffered during her pregnancy. She started going to therapy twice a week to help make sense of her feelings about ending her pregnancy — and reminders of the first time she chose to have an abortion.
Her first abortion came before the Texas law banning most abortions. She was a victim of sexual assault and became pregnant after the encounter. After some consideration, she decided that she wanted to have an abortion.
“Once you get done and you get through the pain, it still lingers,” Amber said. “After the first, I would always think, ‘Wow, I would have been a mom right now. My kid would have been this many months, and me and my boyfriend would be doing this.’ It’s still hard to think about.”
Even though it was before the state’s restrictive law was adopted, she described the stigma she sees around abortion, regardless of the circumstances.
“There were people outside (the abortion clinic), and they were yelling at me telling me that I was murdering my baby and how I’m a bad person,” Amber said. “I just thought, ‘If you knew my story, you would know that a bad person did this to me.’ I didn’t ask for this. It wasn’t because my skirt was too short, it wasn’t because I wanted to be pregnant by somebody other than the person I was with for multiple years, like somebody saw something they wanted from me, and they took it without my permission.”
The women were quiet as Amber wiped tears from her eyes, offering somber smiles and nods of affirmation as she discussed her experience.
“I’m just thinking back to all of those moments where I sat by myself on the bathroom floor, crying and questioning why this is happening,” D.A. said. “I felt like I was just getting my life together, and then everything crashed. When you come here, it’s like I’m not the only person going through this. There’s so many people going through their own hardships, and we all have to help each other. It’s not like we all started talking to each other immediately, but as we went through the day, we started opening up to each other and realizing that we were going through similar situations and having similar struggles, in a process where you’re made to feel so alone.”
Soon, the women would climb once more into the waiting cars of volunteers and make their way back to the airport, closing out a long, physically and emotionally draining day.
After their flight, the sky was dark when the women boarded a bus bound for the First Unitarian Church of Dallas.
They would arrive back at the church roughly 16 hours after their initial arrival, but this time they knew what to expect. They were all exhausted and eager to return home.
Some had exchanged contact information in the hopes of staying in touch. Kanter invited them all back to the church for a future service.
“When I found out this was through a church, I was very surprised,” Amber said. “I was scared that it was going to be really dim and bleak and scary, and it was the complete opposite. I was shocked to see a congregation that treated choice the way they did. I’m going to come back.”
About this story
This story is the result of a collaboration between the Austin American-Statesman and USA TODAY for the purpose of producing the first episode in the new series “States of America.” The last names of the subjects were not used at the request of those featured because of the personal nature of their choices. The full episode of “States of America” exploring the abortion landscape in Texas will premiere at 9 p.m. EDT July 9 on the USA TODAY NETWORK’s streaming channel. For a full list of platforms offering our FREE streaming channel, follow the link here.