Helped an 11-Year-Old Rape Victim and Hundreds of Others
By Carter Sherman, January 19, 2023
I Helped an 11-Year-Old Rape Victim and Hundreds of Other People Get Abortions After Roe
Franz Theard usually performs abortions for free to celebrate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. But this year, he’s not sure what he’ll do.
For more than 30 years, Theard ran a private OB-GYN practice in El Paso, Texas, which straddles the border between Mexico and the United States, as well as the border between Texas and New Mexico. A fervent believer in the idea that abortion is a normal part of health care, Theard also performed abortions.
His El Paso clinic is closed now. In 2020, after what he says was years of harassment by the Texan government, Theard and his business partner decided to close up shop. They got out just in time. In September 2021, Texas enacted a law that banned abortion roughly six weeks into pregnancy. Then, in June 2022, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Sunday, Jan. 22, marks what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe. Without Roe, abortion rights across the country have been plunged into free-fall. More than a dozen states have now banned all or most abortions, including Texas.
But Roe’s fall hasn’t stopped Theard from performing abortions. He owns a clinic just across the New Mexican border, in the tiny town of Santa Teresa, where abortion remains legal. And Texans are fleeing to Theard’s New Mexico clinic.
“We’ve been a lot more busy since Roe v. Wade was abolished. We are seeing double the number of patients we used to see,” Theard said. “And we can do more.”
Eventually, experts believe, roughly half of the United States will have abortion bans.
In order to understand what this future may look like, VICE News turned to the past—to the stories of the people who’ve had front-row seats to the last half-century’s fight over abortion. Theard spoke to VICE News about his experience providing abortions in Texas and New Mexico as part of our series about the legacies left by veterans of the U.S. abortion wars.
I was a young man before Roe v. Wade. What I remember, pre-Roe, is the fear of people getting pregnant. If you had a girlfriend, every month, you worried. What are you going to do? What if she gets pregnant? What if she doesn’t get pregnant? The pill was relatively new at the time, so it was a high-risk situation if you were a young man or a woman back in the ‘70s or late ‘60s trying to have, sometimes, unprotected sex.
Now, I’m from Haiti. I remember very well there were some Haitian doctors in New York who were doing abortions. It wasn’t like coat hangers or anything, but they would do the abortions in their home, basically in the garage. They were well-trained people, and it was easy money. It was 1,500 bucks back in 1972, because the doctors were taking a big risk. [That would amount to roughly $10,000 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.]
So when Roe came in, it was just like a liberation. I remember the headlines. Abortion now legal in the United States! I was in Washington, D.C. at the time. I had two roommates and a couple of them had just gotten back from New York to bring their girlfriends to an abortion. [New York legalized abortion in 1970.] And I remember very well us yelling and screaming, “Hey, it’s the new law. Abortion is now legal.”
I started my residency the same year, in 1973. The chief of the department had his own clinic on the side, and he was hiring younger doctors to do abortions. Professionally, I grew up with an atmosphere where all the good doctors that I knew, that I related with, were doing abortions. So I got very familiar with the procedure and also the complications of the procedure. Abortion was part of my training, basically.
This was also during the Vietnam War, and the government would allow us to finish our residency before we went to the Army. I did not really want to go as a general medical officer to Vietnam. Vietnam ended two years into my residency, and I thought I was free. But no, I got a letter three months before my residency was over, and it said, You are going to go to the Army for two years. We went to Frankfurt, Germany, and worked at a big referral hospital. We would get planeloads of soldiers coming in from all over the world. They would come from the Middle East, come from all the European countries, pregnant. And the Army allowed us, for the duration of our time in Germany, to do abortions.
I was always interested in obstetrics, so after the Army, I went to El Paso in 1979 to do a fellowship, which I did in maternal fetal medicine. Throughout my fellowship, I used to go moonlight at a couple of clinics in El Paso, and I used to do abortions.
After I became board-certified, I started my private OB-GYN practice in cooperation with a good friend who was also a nurse. We would do abortions. The feeling was that in El Paso, or in Texas, that was a death warrant. If you did abortions, nobody would come visit you. Your OB-GYN practice would crumble. It was rough at the beginning, looking for patients. But I was able, for almost 30 years, to have a very thriving OB-GYN practice along with doing abortions.
There were, however, violent demonstrations in the beginning. Picketers came in and locked the doors, with all the patients inside, yelling, screaming. There was a bullhorn, police, fire department, everything. A few of them got arrested. Every day, my house was picketed. It was very stressful to my ex-wife and the children as they were growing up.
I decided I will never wear a bulletproof vest to go to work, even at a time when abortion doctors were getting shot. I didn’t feel that it would make any difference. If they want to kill you, they shoot you in the head. So what’s the point?
And then we had to deal with the government. It would be one obstruction after another from the state of Texas. We had to report everything, in every case. The surprise inspections, so to speak, were becoming more frequent. We could never do anything to please them. We had to spend $6,000 or so per year for literature that every patient had to read showing that abortion causes breast cancer. We had to give it to the patient. We didn’t agree with a word they were saying, but we had to pay for it. That made us a little bit angry. Satisfying the Texas requirements became more and more difficult not just for me, but for my partner. She got burnt out.
In March of 2020, the governor of Texas decided that, because of COVID, they would close all abortion clinics. And so we closed.
[Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order to postpone all abortions that weren’t “immediately, medically necessary.” After Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that order applied to almost all abortions, abortion rights supporters sued, triggering weeks of litigation and mass confusion over whether abortion was legal in Texas.]
I remember my partner and I looking at each other and we said, ‘Look, you’re 74. I’m 72, 71. Do we really want to go to Texas anymore and put up all the BS that we have to?’ No. So we closed the clinic. We moved everything to New Mexico.
I got bad COVID—ICU for three weeks, almost intubation, all that stuff. Unfortunately, my partner, the nurse, and her husband, got it too. They both died. I survived. I decided that, yes, I would continue, but I could not do surgical abortions anymore. I had enough. We’re just going to do the pill abortions now.
When we found out that Roe v. Wade was overturned, we were actually working in this clinic. We didn’t believe it originally. I thought common sense will prevail. But I was ready. With SB8, or the six-week ban, we started seeing 50 patients more a month from Texas, East Texas. Now, we’re up almost to 300. I think we’ll be serving all of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana. We had two patients from Corpus Christi, a 10-hour drive, today. Drove all this way to get a freaking pill.
Six months ago, we had a young girl from Texas, 11 years old, who got pregnant by rape. We did a termination here. It was just a pill. But can you imagine if she was 12, 15 weeks into her pregnancy, and then we had to do it surgically? It’s devastating.
We just had a patient who takes Accutane. That is one of the drugs that definitely causes birth defects. She comes in with her mom. She’s like 17, 18 years old, and she’s already 11 weeks pregnant. But what’s the alternative? They had already called a clinic in Albuquerque. It was a two-week wait. They called a clinic in Kansas. The price was doubled. Plus, it was another airplane flight.
We gave her the pill, and it didn’t work. She was bleeding. Come three days later, she’s still pregnant. But we already saw something—the sac was collapsing a little bit. So we gave her another set of pills. We didn’t charge. Eventually, three or four days later, she started bleeding, cramping, and passed everything.
Just the other day, I went to a Subway to eat. There was a lady picketing and she followed me. I had a drink and she came up to me and she said, “I wanted to see the look of evil up close.” I didn’t know what to say. I smiled. And I said, “Well, have a nice day,” or something like that. I try to respect their point of view, but I’m not going to change. I’m tired of justifying myself to people about what I do. It is where it is. Deal with it.
I used to rant that we dropped the ball. We got complacent. You know, in 1984, ‘85, ‘86, when we had picketers, we had picketers for us. We had pro-choice and pro-life picketers fighting it out. I haven’t seen one pro-choice banner, picketer, or supporter in my clinic here or in Texas in the past 20 years. Doctors will say, “Oh, yeah, man, I believe in what you do. Those assholes are picketing your clinic.” Good to hear. Do you want to come help with the procedure?
The general public, the pro-choice general public, has become complacent. If you had come a year and a half ago, there would be anger. They would really get pissed off. But now? “It’s Texas.” I say, “Aren’t you upset that you have to drive 10 hours to get a pill and have to drive back?” They are resigned. The anger is gone. I hope, but I’m not too sure, that the enthusiasm will come back.
The problem is, I’m getting old. I’m in the process of losing my lease on this building. I have one more year to go and there’s nothing I can seem to do to change the mind of the owner of the building. So we’re scrambling a little bit. Do we want to have another five-year lease somewhere? I probably won’t be alive in five years and I don’t want my family to have this financial burden of a lease that they’ll have to break since I’m dead.
If people don’t fight for what they believe in, if people won’t be active and vocal, then we’ve failed. We’re losing the battle. We won in 1973, but we’re losing in 2023. I suspect that in 20 years or so, maybe Roe v. Wade will be back. But it’s going to take a long time and I will not be there.