Dyana Limon-Mercado: A Woman On the Front Lines of Abortion Access in Texas
Dyana Limon-Mercado still remembers everything about former Texas senator Wendy Davis’s famous filibuster over an anti-abortion bill in the summer of 2013. At the time, Limon-Mercado, a Travis County-born, first-generation college graduate, was working as the Statewide Public Affairs Coordinator for Planned Parenthood. Her job was to coordinate grassroots and lobbying strategy between Planned Parenthood’s affiliates, national office, and partners on the ground — no small task for anyone in a state as historically strict on abortion as Texas. She did all of this, she recalls, while she was eight months pregnant with the oldest of her two daughters, 6-year-old Athena (she remembers the vivid orange maternity dress she wore, too).
Seven years later, Limon-Mercado is now the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood for Texas, and she is fighting legislation very similar to the kind Davis took on in 2013. In 2013, Texas legislators banned almost all abortions after 20 weeks, and as of 2019, there were just 22 clinics open to a state with a population of 29 million people. Now, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, the state’s top executive leaders have effectively banned all abortions, including medication abortions, which require a series of pills and no personal protective equipment to be non-essential procedures.
Lawmakers in five other states also attempted to halt abortion services during this time, but Texas is the only one in which the order has taken effect. Planned Parenthood and other health centers remain open, but they are limited in the services they can offer.
“We’re in a time where the governor thinks that the constitution can be suspended in a time of a pandemic,” Limon-Mercado told Supermajority News on a phone call last week. “It’s devastating; we’ve heard from staff working in the health centers that this is the hardest thing they’ve ever had to work with patients on and communicate with them on. ‘There was a series of days where it was like, ‘Is abortion allowed? Is it not allowed?’”
On March 22, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order stating that “medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures” would be canceled to preserve medical resources for treating COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. On March 23, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement adding that failure to comply with the governor’s order would result in penalties of up to $1,000 or 180 hours of jail time. On March 25, Planned Parenthood filed an emergency lawsuit against the state on behalf of eight reproductive rights organizations in Texas, claiming that the order was unconstitutional and in violation of Roe v. Wade. On April 7, a U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ban on abortion in Texas would stand, except in circumstances where the pregnancy could threaten the pregnant person’s life.
Limon-Mercado, who became the permanent Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Texas this year after working for the organization for 11 years, is not shocked that her state is putting these kinds of restrictions on abortion right now. She’s used to meeting resistance, and she’s used to hard work.
The activist was born to 16-year-old parents who worked her whole childhood so that she would have money for her college education. While she earned her undergraduate degree at Texas State University, Limon-Mercado waited tables and worked as a bartender, and graduated debt-free. After she graduated, she began working at the Travis County Jail. Limon-Mercado’s family has been in Travis County for 130 years, and a number of women in her family have worked for the local government — so it made sense that she would work for them, too.
Limon-Mercado’s job was to prepare dockets for people who had just been arrested. Then, the sheriff allowed ICE to come into the jail and set up an office. Limon-Mercado’s job, “went from helping people through their entry point into the criminal justice system to then having to do that and then also telling people at the same time that they were probably getting deported,” she recalled. “I had moms crying to me that their kids were waiting for them at school, husbands telling me that their wives were disabled, and they were the only income source. I had grandkids crying because their grandma was waiting for medicine that they were on their way to pick up.”
After seeing the country’s broken immigration system through the lens of the county jail, Limon-Mercado wanted to make a real difference in both politics and policy. She was granted a rare partial scholarship to attend the business school at University of Texas San Antonio, while continuing to work and commute to and from the county jail in Austin — a commute of more than an hour each way. Limon-Mercado said she knows she could have gone straight from business school to a full-time job with benefits, but she wanted to be where real change happens. Once she finished her program, she opted for an unpaid internship at the statehouse.
She started her internship in 2009, just after Barack Obama was elected president, and Texas had what she calls a “bipartisan oasis” with 74 Democrats and 76 Republicans. “I thought it was always going to be like that, and they tricked me!” Limon-Mercado joked, referring to the infamous Republican sweep in the 2010 election, which left Democrats in the state a superminority.
Following her internship, she did some work in disability rights and criminal justice reform, then worked for Annie’s List, a state organization that advocates for women to participate in political leadership. In 2011, Limon-Mercado landed at Planned Parenthood. As if to prove a point about the tricky status of reproductive rights in Texas, her first day was at the hearing of a mandatory sonogram bill, which was signed into law that year by the state’s then-governor, Republican Rick Perry.
Her time at Planned Parenthood as statewide coordinator, deputy director, and now the executive director has included some real struggles for abortion advocates in Texas. But the wins, when they happen, feel good. Limon-Mercado — who is also the Travis County Democratic Party chair — hopes to see more wins soon as a result of some key down-ballot races in Texas’ 2020 election, including in Wendy Davis’s bid for Congress.
The fight for social and reproductive justice in Texas has always been personal for the mom of two. When Limon-Mercado was a little girl growing up in Texas, Ann Richards was governor of her state, and having a woman in charge was something she said was “so incredibly important” to her, even then. As a 19-year-old, Limon-Mercado found herself pregnant while trying to leave an abusive partner. Limon-Mercado says she lived out the best-case scenario for her situation; she was able to confide in her mother, who took her to receive the abortion that she deemed necessary for her life (“all abortions are necessary,” she added).
Now, she wants to ensure people in her state have the access they need to the procedure — especially in this time of crisis.
“Having two abortions—[and] a miscarriage—and knowing how each of those things has shaped my life, just motivates me so much to keep fighting for every person. I was able to have an abortion in what I felt like was a crisis in my life, coming out of an abusive relationship and trying to escape my abuser. I can’t imagine having to go through that in a pandemic… As a community, we’re going to do our best and fight every single day and make sure people who need these services can still access them.”