By Mia Saidel
WASHINGTON—Alejandra Pablos has had four abortions at Planned Parenthood clinics in three states. But this alone is not what sets Pablos apart. She was also charged for marijuana possession several years ago and served two years in prison for her ambiguous immigration status from Mexico, where she was born. Her parents are separated and her single mother in Arizona raised her. Despite her circumstances, the 31-year-old activist, who volunteers at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, is somewhat lucky. She was able to pay for her own abortions, which were all first trimester pregnancies and each cost around $500, because she lived on her own and always found work.
Most women who seek abortions in the U.S. are already mothers who are economically disadvantaged and are usually women of color.
“The majority of people who have abortions are people of color, folks who are living just or at the poverty line and two thirds of these women are already parenting,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, the senior public affairs manager at the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF). “We at NNAF want to make sure people understand how economic transitions and health care access plays a part in how women get abortions.” The network is comprised of 70 member organizations across 38 states in the U.S. and seeks to remove financial and logistical barriers to abortion access.
Abortion activists and organizations like the NNAF in Washington, which operate on private donations, are mobilizing under the Trump administration with success to provide abortions to the most disenfranchised women across the nation. Knowing they are up against a White House and Congress that are attempting to pass legislation that would shut down federal funding for family planning services and shorten abortion terms, these activists are fighting for abortion access to not be limited by a woman’s zip code or the contents of her wallet.
“Most women who call us are earning less than $15,000 a year and either don’t have insurance or are on Medicaid,” said Sarah Wides, a case manager at the D.C. Abortion Fund (DCAF). The nonprofit is completely volunteer-based and provides grants from private donors to pregnant women in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area who cannot afford the full cost of an abortion.
But most insurance in the U.S., including Medicaid, will not cover abortions. The Hyde Amendment, in effect since 1977, bans federal dollars from being used for abortion coverage for women insured by Medicaid. Seventeen states have a policy requiring the state to provide abortion coverage under Medicaid, but only 15 appear to be doing so in practice, according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization dedicated to advancing sexual and reproductive health rights in the U.S. This puts women who face real financial hardship at a huge disadvantage for accessing abortion services.
According to this same study by the Guttmacher Institute, women make their decisions to abort based on their potential for a future looking at their future rather than moral reasoning. The three most common reasons—each cited by three-fourths of patients—were concern for or responsibility to other individuals, the inability to afford raising a child, and the belief that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents.
Lenora Yerkes, a local artist in Washington and a donor to the D.C. Abortion Fund, is pursuing her activism through artistic expression. Yerkes makes commissioned work for the fund based on how much donors contribute. For $35, she gives away 11×7 comic strip panels, for $60, a hand-drawn protest sign to bring to demonstrations, and for $120, an original personalized comic. For Yerkes, this particular cause is very personal to her.
“My mother had an abortion before Roe v. Wade in California, and she was able to have a safe procedure while women were dying left and right,” Yerkes said. “That was the real impact of Roe v. Wade, the fact that it made abortions more safe for women. Recently at a benefit for DCAF, one woman got up and told her story and asked the crowd to raise their hands if they’ve ever loved anyone who’s had an abortion. And that really got me because my life has been impacted by this issue, and access to safe health care is so vitally important.”
The Senate voted on March 30 to undo a rule in the Obama administration that prevents states from blocking funding for family planning clinics that also provide abortions, after Vice President Mike Pence cast the tiebreaking vote. This funding is made possible through Title X. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Title X is the only federal grant program dedicated solely to providing individuals with comprehensive family planning and related preventive health services. It prohibits funds from being used for abortions. However, the program is designed to prioritize the needs of low-income families and the uninsured. Congressional members have indicated that the primary goal of the new bill is to take money away from Planned Parenthood.
“I used to go to Planned Parenthood all the time as a teenager because my mom would go there for her health care,” Yerkes said. “In California, Planned Parenthood is very strong. I didn’t need a lot of health care growing up, but they covered all of the health care stuff I needed between my neck and my knees.”
Planned Parenthood only designates 3 percent of its funding to abortions, according to its website. It provides crucial health services to women of minority populations. At least 60 percent of Planned Parenthood patients rely on public health programs like Medicaid and Title X for their preventive and primary care, according to the Planned Parenthood website. In other words, defunding this reproductive health care provider would fundamentally disadvantage women of low economic status by depriving them of accessible health care that is unrelated to abortion.
To combat this possibility, abortion advocacy organizations are promoting fundraisers to provide grants to women that cover not only the expenses of their abortion procedure, but also the travel costs in case they must travel to a different state to get to a clinic.
“I used to have women stay with me overnight at my house after they’ve traveled for their procedure,” Bracey Sherman said. “I’ve also helped with their gas money. Can you imagine being in such a vulnerable situation and having to travel across states to get to the clinic you need?”
The costs of abortions vary, but more expensive procedures are those that involve women in their third trimesters. These can cost up to $12,000, according to Wides. Private donations that are raised through organizations like DCAF or NNAF are important because insurance will not cover the cost unless it can be proven that the woman carrying the child is at risk of dying.
Wides said that since the start of the Trump administration, the number of donors to the D.C. Abortion Fund has increased. The fund, which is one of the 70 nonprofit member organizations in the NNAF, is on the last stretch of its annual Bowl-A-Thon fundraiser, which ends in May. The Bowl-A-Thon teams include names like “Make Abortion Great Again,” “Fund Abortion Bigly,” and “Grab ‘Em by the Pencey.” The funds are allocated into subcategories like funding a first or second trimester abortion in the DMV area or helping to field phone calls.
“Last year, our goal was $60,000—I believe the first year of the event in 2005 was less than $10,000—this year our goal is $70,000, and we’re on track to beat that,” Wides said. “So the fundraising gets bigger every year but the need also gets bigger. We are getting more and more calls.”
The NNAF is also surpassing its benchmark for fundraising, Bracey Sherman said. The organization’s website announced that it reached the $1 million mark on April 17. In 2016, the organization raised $940,000, according to its website.
Besides fundraising, activists at NNAF say that they are also working to de-stigmatize the word “abortion” and openly speak about the experience is a powerful way to facilitate understanding.
“I think the more we talk about it and more honest we are about our experiences and realizing how much we are impacted, just being really honest about it will make a difference,” Bracey Sherman said. “There are many other movements where people think an issue doesn’t impact their family, whether it’s undocumented folks or anything else, and when they realize it does, it shifts their perspective. It’s the same with abortion. A lot of people think they don’t know people who have an abortion, and if they do, they might have empathy and listen to why they might have one. It’s a chance to really hear them and it shifts the conversation. It would build a much more compassionate and just world.”
The We Testify organization was created for just this purpose, and Bracey Sherman is one of its leaders. It is a program within the NNAF comprised of 17 “abortion storytellers,” who are mostly women of color, across the country. The initiative is meant to create a community for women who have experienced abortion so that they do not feel alone, and to also ensure that the media is reflecting these narratives accurately, Bracey Sherman said. Pablos is also a part of the We Testify network, and simultaneously advocates for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.
“It was one thing to work for organization that advocates for the legality of abortion, but another thing to be with women who were dealing with the stigma, the shaming of their own self, and even face stigma from women who look down on you when you have more than one abortion,” Pablos said.
More importantly, advocates are suggesting that abortion access directly contributes to women’s futures and signals the possibility for greater opportunities.
“For the last abortion I had, my friends threw me an abortion shower to celebrate my decision,” Pablos said. “It took me years to celebrate the right way, and now I know that after having these abortions, I will be ok. Organizations that center on reproductive justice like We Testify and NNAF give people like me the chance to find power and feel empowered.”