Mercedes Soto, 32, is praying outside Whole Woman’s Health, in McAllen, Texas. It’s the last remaining abortion clinic in the entire 1800-square-mile region known as the Rio Grande Valley.
Soto is standing with fellow anti-abortion protesters who call themselves prayer warriors. She doesn’t look like the other women praying, she is a lot younger. The word “misunderstood” is tattooed in cursive on the outside of her arm. Soto says that she had a rough childhood and that she always felt isolated and unloved. When she turned 18, she left home.
“If you would have looked at me in my old life, you wouldn’t have thought anything good,” said Soto. “I turned to drugs as a coping mechanism. I started hanging out with the wrong crew. I joined a gang. I just wanted to belong, I wanted to belong.” After a long pause, she added, “I wanted somebody to be there for me.”
Two years ago, Soto got pregnant and came to the Whole Woman’s Health clinic for the first time. Except, she didn’t come as an anti-abortion protester but as a patient.
“I was on the other side,” said Soto, “I was contemplating abortion, and I was very headstrong about my abortion.”
On her way into the clinic that day, Soto was stopped by an anti-abortion activist praying outside the clinic. Soto explained, “She starts telling me I’m beautiful and I wasn’t trying to hear this woman, I wasn’t,”
Ultimately, Soto decided not to have an abortion that day. Now, outside of the clinic, she carries a sign depicting what looks like a gory fetus and the words “Abortion Is Murder.” In her other hand, she is holding an even more persuasive tool. Her one-year-old son Samson, who joins her multiple times a week while she protests outside the clinic.
In January, hundreds of protesters rallied outside the Whole Woman’s Health Clinic in McAllen. One group was marching against the abortion clinic, and another smaller pro-abortion rights group encircled the clinic in support, chanting, “Pro-life that’s a lie you don’t care if people die.”
“Seeing all of these women here, has just ignited the fire,” said 25-year-old Laura Molinar who traveled over 230 miles from San Antonio to defend the McAllen clinic.
At the protest, she held a hand-drawn sign on yellow poster board with the words “Don’t Tread On Me” on top. The flag is one you see all over the place in Texas, only on her sign, the snake wraps around a giant uterus.
“It took me a while to draw this uterus,” said Molinar, “it’s not the best.”
There used to be one other abortion clinic about 35 miles from McAllen, but it closed because of a Texas law known as House Bill 2. HB2 was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, but many clinics affected by the law never reopened.
The closures of these clinics would have been celebrated in the church Molinar grew up in.
“As a teenager I was so involved with the Catholic Church, you know, doing praise and worship,” said Molinar.
Friends from Molinar’s church youth group used to pray outside abortion clinics. But, last year, the issue became personal for Molinar when she chose to have an abortion.
“I was faced with the hard circumstance of actually becoming pregnant and making that choice for myself,” said Molinar. “I never thought that would happen to me until it actually did. I remember feeling so alone, and so scared and unworthy, and I remember telling myself that I will do everything in my power from this point on to help women so that they will never feel like that.”
In the Rio Grande Valley, the local Catholic diocese is a major organizer of anti-abortion efforts. The clinic in McAllen has protesters outside of its main entrance almost every day. And anti-abortion activists even travel from across the border in Mexico to demonstrate outside the clinic.
But for Molinar, her religion remains a guide. For her, it’s not just about maintaining abortion access in this part of Texas but also fighting for all the other services the clinic provides to low-income and undocumented women, like birth control and pap smears.
“I still identify as Catholic and I still feel that God loves me,” said Molinar, who then began crying. “I don’t think that I’ve confronted that yet. And I feel that a lot of members of the church shame these women and make them feel unloved and unsupported and that God doesn’t love them. Which is not true.”
President Trump has vowed to try to overturn Roe v. Wade, which has emboldened activists on both sides of the abortion debate, and the scene outside many abortion clinics in the U.S. has been intensifying. Last month, there were protests and counter-protests outside Planned Parenthood locations in at least 45 states.
With abortion, it so often seems like the national divides are entrenched and that nothing will change a person’s point of view. But in McAllen and across the US, there are women like Mercedes Soto, and Laura Molinar, who defy what you might think, and sometimes, even change their minds about abortion.
Maya Cueva is also an independent filmmaker working on a documentary series about the abortion debate in America.