Abortion Access For the Poor




T

wenty-four
hours after bombs began falling on Iraq, news of another battle
at home came via email. The message stated that three women had
arrived in a New York City abortion clinic that morning without
the means to pay for the procedure. Out-of-staters all, the women
would be turned away unless $3,000 was raised. 


The
email came from the New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF), a group
founded in February 2001 to help low-income women pay for abortions.
It asked for contributions to help defray the cost of the procedures.
Several hours after the email was sent, enough cash had been pledged
to allow the three to terminate their second-trimester pregnancies.
According to Jessica Brewer, a NYAAF board member, “Thirteen
percent of the abortions performed in the U.S. are performed in
New York City. A lot of the action happens here. People don’t
always understand the need for funding because Medicaid pays for
abortion in New York. They don’t realize how many women fall
through the cracks.” 


“I
don’t think it’s common knowledge that women come to New
York from out-of-state to get abortions,” adds Irene Zanthou-
dakis, a NYAAF founder and board member. “People realize that
surrounding states have more restrictive laws than New York, but
they do not realize that women cross state lines for surgery. 


“What’s
more, they rarely understand that, although New York is one of 16
states that funds Medicaid abortions, this is little help to women
who reside elsewhere. On top of this, others lack coverage, including:
disabled Medicare beneficiaries, military personnel and their dependents,
Peace Corp volunteers, federal prisoners, and Native Americans who
rely on the Indian Health Service—to say nothing of those too
“rich” for Medicaid, but too poor to buy health insurance. 


Indeed,
none of the three women who came to NYAAF attention in March were
insured. Yet all were in dire straits. 


The
Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) estimates that 1.5 percent of abortions
are performed after 20 weeks gestation. Nonetheless, most NYAAF
clients fall into this category. The reasons vary, says Fund volunteers,
and range from lack of resources to legal restrictions; from late
detection of fetal abnormalities to ambivalence, fear, or denial
of the pregnancy. New York allows abortions through the 24th week,
which further contributes to making it a second-trimester mecca.
NYAAF volunteers do not counsel women seeking abortions. They have
no direct contact with the women they assist. Instead, counselors
from several clinics call NYAAF whenever a woman needing financial
assistance comes to their attention. 


“Some
abortion funds work on an open referral system, where the woman
will call and ask for money herself,” says board member Irene
Zanthoudakis. “We work on a closed system and a couple of Manhattan
clinics refer to us. We began giving out money in June 2001. Our
average grant is $100. This is typical. Most abortion funds don’t
pay for the entire cost of a procedure; they don’t usually
need to because most women have some money, be it $100, $200, or
$600. An abortion counselor will call NYAAF, as well as two, three,
or four other funds, and between all of us and the woman, the need
can be met. 


“In
its first 21 months, NYAAF assisted 71 women and raised slightly
more than $23,000 through house parties, special events, and direct
mail appeals. While all concede that this is barely a drop in the
collection tin, it represents the dogged work of five core volunteers
and several less active supporters. Slowly but surely NYAAF is growing.
The women who formed NYAAF met at Barnard College during the 1999-2000
academic year. Lauren Porsch, a then 20- year-old women’s studies
major, organized Students for Choice and, with Zanthoudakis and
a handful of others, coordinated campus programs on emergency contraception.
The group also acted as escorts at a Queens clinic. 


“One
Saturday morning we were at the clinic and we saw a woman get turned
away,” Zanthoudakis recalls. “We never got the details,
but we learned that she could not afford the procedure. This was
the first time any of us had contemplated access. We had not realized
that if you could not pay, you might not be able to get an abortion.
Then, in the spring of 2000 we went to a conference sponsored by
the Feminist Majority Foundation. The National Network of Abortion
Funds (NNAF) was there and we got a copy of their binder on how
to start an abortion fund. Lauren got in touch with NNAF and we
decided to start a fund in New York City.” 



T

wo
years later, they are attempting to increase both their cadre of
volunteers and their budget so that more women can be assisted.
“NYAAF is an emergency fund,” says board member Jessica
Brewer. “But we want the fund to grow so that when there are
multiple requests for grants we don’t have to move into emergency
gear each and every time. Right now there are some weeks when we
get no calls and others when we get eight. It really fluctuates.
We try to give out $250-$350 a week. We don’t restrict grants
to young women, but as it happens, most of the calls are about women
18 to 22. Most are in the 20-ish week of pregnancy. By law, we can
only help those who are 24 weeks or less. Each of the five board
members takes a week and will check the voicemail a few times a
day. If we don’t give out all the money we have one week, we’ll
push what’s left into the next.” 


Brewer
describes being on-call as simultaneously harrowing and satisfying.
“I can’t imagine the emotions of being trapped and feeling
like I couldn’t do anything about the situation because of
money,” she says. “By working with NYAAF I can have a
direct, immediate impact on a woman’s life. This is the best
way I know to put my beliefs into action.”





Eleanor Bader is the co-author of

Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion
Terrorism.

She is a freelance contributor to

Library Journal,
In These Times,

and the

Progressive