Exclusive: Nancy Cárdenas Peña Envisions a Future With Full Access to Reproductive Health Care
Nancy Cárdenas Peña foresees a day when she will no longer have to do her job.
"I want to be unemployed in the aspect that I will no longer have to advocate for a safe and common medical procedure that people are entitled to have," she says.
The Texas State Director for Policy and Advocacy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice is a pivotal player in the intersection between immigration and reproductive health care for border communities in the Rio Grande Valley.
After Senate Bill 8, the most restrictive abortion law in the United States, which prohibits women from having an abortion after six weeks was enacted on September 1, 2021, her leadership has become a pillar for reproductive justice in Texas.
"When we talk about SB8, and we talk about how terrible it is for Texas [but] we understand it is terrible overall. It would be naïve of us to believe that it affects everyone the same way. This is particularly prevalent here in the Rio Grande Valley, where there are so many intersecting issues that affect people's access to abortion care," Cárdenas Peña explains.
"When I do this work, I know I can't look at SB8 as a siloed bill, as if it's the only bill that affects people's access to abortion care, because it simply isn't the reality for a lot of people who are living here," she continues.
Cárdenas Peña, a native of the Rio Grande Valley, grew up watching the struggles of border communities that range from access to reproductive care to immigration issues. After completing her studies at the University of Texas at Austin, she felt compelled to return to the region and serve the community where she grew up.
"Nancy works tirelessly to bring awareness to the full lives of immigrant and undocumented women, including their access to health care, in support of policies that directly support immigrant women and families and, in the community, leading a team of organizers (poderosas) and advocates in the Rio Grande Valley," Yvonne Gutierrez, Managing Director at Latino Victory Project says about Cárdenas Peña.
She continues, "This work plays a vital role in safeguarding and expanding reproductive rights for immigrant and undocumented communities in the border, and in the long-term, will help create an equitable health care system in this region."
Gutierrez met Cárdenas Peña when she was involved in the reproductive rights movement. At the time, Gutierrez was the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. They eventually had the opportunity of working together on various policy fights and initiatives to further reproductive justice.
"In recent years, we've seen ceaseless attacks on reproductive rights that impact the lives of millions of women in this country," Gutierrez explains.
She affirms, "Let's be clear, the future of abortion access is not looking bright, and it is especially uncertain for women of color. State legislatures across the country have undermined and chipped away at our ability to freely access the full range of sexual and reproductive health care, most significantly abortion. And challenges to these extreme abortion bans are being upheld by the courts."
Under the strict parameters of SB8, no exceptions for rape or incest will be made for individuals who seek abortion care. Additionally, the bill rewards individuals who report suspected abortion care—anyone from Uber or Lyft drivers to physicians to the women themselves—to the authorities with a compensation of $10,000 in legal fees.
"There are no exceptions to SB8. This is one of the most notorious and restrictive abortion bills in the country—more than we've ever seen. But we also understand that the reasons why people get abortions can be complex—or maybe they're not complex," Cárdenas Peña states. "Whatever the decision is that people get abortions, we feel they should be supported in whatever [their reasons]."
Cárdenas Peña also expresses caution when including exceptions for rape or incest, as it sends a "very peculiar message" that folks must be violated in this manner for the law to protect them and provide them with the care they need.
"We think that everyone should be able to have abortions if they need them; this is a very safe and common medical procedure," she adds. Additionally, she recommends that under the right resources and guidance, people can also resort to self-medicated abortion.
According to the World Health Organization, self-management of medical abortion is a safe and effective abortion care methodology that reduces the need for skilled surgical abortion providers and offers a safe option for individuals who wish to terminate a pregnancy.
However, in Texas and other states such as Oklahoma, access to reproductive care has become more restrictive, making Cárdenas Peña's role more relevant than ever before, particularly for women of color.
"At the Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, our focus is working on the intersection between immigration and reproductive health care," she says. "It isn't just about talking abortion, even though that is the most controversial aspect of it because people don't believe that Latino communities support abortion access—and that's simply not the case."
"The spectrum [of] what reproductive justice is, which isn't just about abortion, it's about being able to be a parent in a healthy environment and what policies are in place that will support that decision to be a parent or not," Cárdenas Peña adds.
Nationwide as more cases rise trying to suppress abortion care, including Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a bill that would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, challenging the 50-year precedent of Roe v. Wade, Cárdenas Peña continues to fight for reproductive care and has hope for the future.
"I don't necessarily think all is lost," she says. "We have field organizing, policy advocacy, we have the courts. We have so much narrative change that we can accomplish and many different avenues for change. I think this has great potential for states that do have friendly legislatures to codify things that are pro-abortion."
Then, she calls for the support of progressive states in supporting access to abortion care.
"We're seeing all of these trends in Republican-dominated states, but there are states that are dominated by friendly legislatures in regard to abortion access, and this is a good opportunity to set in stone abortion services and proactive policies that will set a good example for other states to follow," she details.
In the end, Cárdenas Peña's leadership is paving a future where people will have the autonomy to make decisions on their health.
"I envision a future where abortion will be free, on-demand and served without apology because this is a common, safe medical procedure that everyone should have the bodily autonomy to make those decisions—whether it is for themselves or their families," she says.