Outside the only abortion clinic in the border city of McAllen, Texas, a debate has played out for years. Some people pray and beg patients to not go inside as some volunteers escort patients to the entrance. But none of them were there when Rosie Jimenez died just across the street more than 40 years ago.
As thousands of people marched to the Supreme Court in support of reproductive rights earlier this month, Rosie’s photo was displayed in banners and her name was repeated by crowds at vigils and rallies across Texas, Arizona, California and Oregon. In McAllen, there was a defiant mood. Activists held a rally about eight blocks from the clinic that stands across the street from city hall.
The building at the edge of the city’s bustling downtown shopping district – where Jimenez died and likely received health care more than four decades ago – was demolished in the early 1990s to make room for the city hall.
Rosie was 27 years old when she contracted a deadly infection in 1977 after she sought a midwife, who was not licensed to perform abortions, to terminate her pregnancy. She couldn’t afford a physician in South Texas and the Hyde Amendment prevented Medicaid from covering the cost of the procedure. For decades, she has been a symbol for abortion rights advocates, inspiring them to draft legislation and focus their work on helping underserved communities — even as one of the strictest abortion bans remains in effect in Texas and the Supreme Court is set to hear a direct challenge to Roe v Wade.
In McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley – a mainly rural region in Texas – where there are high levels of poverty and a large population of Mexican Americans, advocates say they want to make Rosie’s story known because poor people of color are often those experiencing the dire consequences of abortion restrictions.
A mural with vibrant colors is painted on the side of McAllen’s abortion clinic. Brown women of multiple hues are portrayed helping each other in a lush green field. Light beams from their hands. The words “justice, compassion, empowerment and dignity” are neatly scrawled across the top of the mural.
The clinic serves McAllen and numerous Texas counties south of San Antonio. Many of the patients are undocumented and a procedure in McAllen costs up to $800. The cost is considerably higher than in other cities and women often struggle with the added costs that include loss of wages, transportation and child care.
A federal appeals court on Friday night put a temporary hold on a judge’s order that had blocked Texas’ six-week abortion ban.
The 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals acted swiftly to grant Texas’ request for an administrative stay of the order, which it had filed Friday afternoon. The state’s move came after a US district judge just days earlier issued a sweeping order blocking the law at the request of the US Justice Department, which had brought a legal challenge last month.
What is constant is that the ongoing legal battles don’t lessen the decades-long anguish and ripple effects of Rosie’s death.
“Rosie Jimenez should still be here but she’s not because of the anti-abortion restrictions that politicians have been passing to keep us from being able to live the lives that we want,” said Ana Rodriguez, a campaigns director with Texas Equal Access Fund and The Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity.
While Rosie has inspired many people to fight for abortion rights, her story is more personal for Monique Jimenez. It disrupted the course of her life.
Monique was only four years old when her mother died, and the memories of those early years with her mom are sparse.
When Monique turned 18, she was ready to start a new life in college, at the same place where her mother spent the last few years of her life. That’s when one of her aunts told her it was time to finally learn something her family had kept from her.
“Your mom died from an abortion,” the 48-year-old recalls her aunt saying as she gave her a book with her mother’s face and name on the cover.
Who was Rosie?
Monique has spent years filling in the gaps with stories from relatives and through her own research. Many times she’s had to debunk misinformation about her mother that has been circulated by strangers over time, she says.
And she wants people to know the joy her mother brought to her family and that she was loved.
Rosie Jimenez was born in McAllen to a large Mexican American family. She had a total of 11 siblings, some of whom died at a young age and included her twin sister. Her parents were migrant workers. As the family grew, they leaned into Rosie’s mother’s skill for cooking and eventually opened a Mexican restaurant.
The young Rosie had a caring spirit and loved dancing. She spent many summer days going to the beach in South Texas, enjoyed dressing up with wigs and styled her outfits with different handbags.
She had big dreams and wanted to go to college, her daughter, Monique, says. Although Rosie didn’t graduate high school, she earned her GED and attended the then-Pan American University.
She became the only person among her siblings to go to college. She dreamed of becoming a special education teacher but was only a sophomore when she died.
“She was strong and she knew what she wanted,” Monique says.
Throughout the years, Monique got to know her mother through photographs and listened to family members when they reminisced about their sister, cousin and friend. Rosie became a single mother in her 20s. The photos that her daughter keeps in a photo album show her wide smile during her baby shower and Monique’s first birthdays.
The year that changed everything
In September 1977, Rosie could not afford to go to a doctor to get an abortion and instead went to a midwife who was not licensed to perform abortions. She decided to go to the hospital after bleeding for several days after the procedure but didn’t tell the nurses and physicians about the abortion at first.
“Maybe she was afraid, maybe she was embarrassed, it’s hard to say what a person is going through or what are their thoughts,” Monique says. “You have to think ’77 was a different time, people were not very receptive of a single mother being pregnant.”
As the days passed, Rosie became more sick. She had an infection that spread throughout her body and her organs later started shutting down.
When her siblings and parents, many who no longer lived in the Rio Grande Valley, went to the hospital, Rosie had been intubated and her body was swollen. She couldn’t talk because of the intubation, but they could tell that she wanted to tell them something.
“They said they gave her a piece of paper and they gave her a pen and she wrote my name on the paper,” Monique says. “They said ‘don’t worry about it, Rosie. We’re going to take care of Monique.’”
Rosie never returned home to see her daughter. She died on October 3, 1977 and was buried a few days later.
A life full of questions
Monique, who now lives in Houston, talks with such candor about her mother. In her mind, there’s no doubt that her mother loved her.
“People have asked me this question: ‘Are you angry because your mother had an abortion?,” Monique says. “They ask me that and I always say no. Why would I be? What kind of person would I be? My mother made the best choice for her at the time.”
Soon after her mother died, Monique was sent to live with her grandparents. She would spend some days at the family’s restaurant, where her grandmother would give her a tortilla with jelly as a snack, she says.
Other days, they would to go a drive-in theater or go swimming to a park along the Rio Grande. She never felt alone, she says, because she had many cousins.
Later, the family moved to Harris county in East Texas, where most of her mother’s siblings had relocated. Relatives then started noticing that Monique looked and acted just like her mother, especially because she always wanted to help others.
“If she had $5 in her pocket, she would give them to you no questions asked if you needed them,” Monique says.
Throughout all those years, no relatives went into detail about how and why Rosie had died. Monique says she and her grandparents would always visit her mother’s grave when the family visited other relatives in McAllen, but they never talked about how Rosie died.
Monique did notice that her grandparents never talked about sex or abortion with her. When Monique learned how her mother died, it was too late. Her grandparents were gone.
“There’s question marks for everything,” Monique says. “I only have the things that I have learned in my life, or just by people, like my aunts. That’s all I have. I have nothing else.”
‘She could be any one of us’
Melissa Arjona thinks that if Rosie Jimenez had been several decades younger and needing an abortion more recently, she could have helped her.
“She was right there, if it had been possible for her to get help. She would have had a safe abortion, she would still be alive,” said Arjona, the founder of the South Texans for Reproductive Justice (STRJ), a group that used to run a volunteer program to escort patients to the clinic and that currently provides free emergency contraception.
Arjona, 40, was volunteering as an escort at the Whole Woman’s Health Clinic about eight years ago when she first heard Rosie’s story. It surprised her that the young woman had lived and died in her hometown. STRJ has since organized different events to honor Rosie’s life and visits her grave to clean it and bring roses.
“She could be any one of us so it just really stayed with us,” Arjona said.
McAllen has been a battleground for women’s reproductive rights for years in part due to the region’s strong ties to Catholicism and abortion being viewed as taboo within the Latino community. The debate has intensified in the past decade as state lawmakers signed several abortion restrictions into law and protesters on both sides of the issue have rallied outside the McAllen clinic.
Recently, several members of a coalition of abortion rights groups stood at a busy intersection holding an approximately 20-feet long sign that read “abortion is healthcare.” They cheered and raised their firsts when drivers flashed them thumbs up, honked at them and little girls waved at them. And when drivers rolled their windows down to call them names and flipped them off, they simply replied by chanting louder.
“Aborto si, aborto no, eso lo decido yo,” they said in Spanish (abortion yes, abortion no, that’s up to me).
Abortion is even more restricted now
More than 40 years after Rosie passed away, a federal provision linked to her death continues to be a flashpoint for controversy across the country.
Last month, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin – a crucial Democratic vote in the 50-50 Senate – said the Hyde Amendment’s inclusion would be necessary for President Joe Biden’s massive economic plan to have his support. Meanwhile, some top Democrats have told CNN they won’t vote in favor of the bill if the provision is included.
The Hyde Amendment officially went into effect in 1977 and it blocks federal funds from being used for most abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the woman’s life is in danger. The Hyde Amendment isn’t permanent law and it applies only to the spending bill into which it’s inserted.
In 2019, Biden came out against the Hyde Amendment during the Democratic primary, reversing his long-held support for the measure.
In Texas, state lawmakers introduced legislation named after Rosie during the past two sessions, but their efforts have been overshadowed by the high-profile bills against abortion. The bill was referred to the Health & Human Services committee for further consideration.
Rosie’s Law, the bill sponsored by Democrats Texas Rep. Sheryl Cole and State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, aims to clear the way for patients to use their Medicaid and private insurance to pay for abortion procedures – a challenge that Rosie faced decades ago.
“Rosie was only 27 years old and she died from an unsafe abortion. And that simply was preventable. Medicare should cover that,” Cole told CNN.
Abortion fund leaders in Texas crafted the legislation after seeing that many of their callers were seeking help because they couldn’t use their insurance to pay for abortion care and couldn’t afford to pay for it out of pocket, Rodriguez says.
“The reality though is that now, in 2021, abortion is actually more restricted than when Rosie died,” says Rodriguez, who is also the legislative campaign coordinator for Rosie’s Law.
Monique feels proud that her mother’s story resonates with so many people but says the state is regressing when it comes to abortion rights. The Texas abortion ban is an example of how restrictions are tougher than those in place in the late 1970s, she says.
“After 44 years, haven’t we learned from the past not to make those same mistakes, and to do something better?,” Monique says.
A day before the anniversary of Rosie’s death, about a dozen fresh red roses lay upon her graveside at the historic La Piedad Cemetery. Her grave, next to that of her grandmother and one of her uncles, has withstood the Texas heat and decades of changes threatening the cemetery, including the expansion of the McAllen airport and its runway, which is only several yards away.
Hundreds of miles away in Houston, Monique says none of her relatives brought the roses to her mother’s grave, but she’s thankful for those who did visit the cemetery on the anniversary of her mother’s death. Nowadays, she may only visit the site during the holidays, but there are many other things helping her feel closer to her mother.
She’s had a career in special education, cooks the ground beef and vegetable soup that her mother cooked for her as a toddler – and she has a 5-year-old daughter.
When the time is right, Monique says, her daughter will know everything about Rosie Jimenez and the movement that she’s still part of. And maybe, they will go together to an abortion rights protest.
“My daughter is going to know about her. I want her to know about her grandma,” Monique says.