By Mary Lou Greenberg, cross-posted from On The Issues Magazine.
When two Barnard college students arrived to escort patients into a New York City abortion clinic one winter day in 2001, they had no idea their experience would affect the lives of over 700 women. And that number grows daily.
As the students, Irene Xanthoudakis and Lauren Porsch, welcomed women to the clinic, they noticed that one woman and her male partner kept going in and out. The couple looked tense and kept lighting up cigarettes. Xanthoudakis and Porsch struck up a conversation with them and found out they didn’t have insurance that would cover an abortion procedure and had come to the clinic hoping the woman could get Medicaid. But she didn’t meet all the qualifications. Not having any financial resources, the couple left, extremely upset and with the woman in tears.
They don’t know what happened to the couple. But Xanthoudakis and Porsch were so distraught that a woman could be turned away for lack of funds, they decided to do something. Their campus student group hosted a party to raise money to help women pay for abortions. But they realized they needed some form of organization to reach women in need and to make sure the funds went for abortions.
Then at a Feminist Expo in Baltimore, they met the National Network of Abortion Funds. What they could do came into focus, and the New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF) was born. By the time they graduated, Xanthoudakis and Porsch had established NYAAF as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, opened a bank account and purchased an “official” cell phone that clinic counselors could call if women came in who needed financial help.
That was 10 years ago. The all-volunteer NYAAF still operates from a cell phone and has no office or paid staff. But at its gala benefit this year, the group announced that, since its inception, it has provided over $232,000 to 764 women.
There are currently nearly 100 abortion funds in 39 states, according to listings by the National Network of Abortion Funds. A fund in New Jersey, the New Jersey Abortion Access Fund, was created just last year. It notes: “Abortion access is a matter of justice. Restrictions disproportionately affect poor women, women of color, young women and women in rural areas. Every woman, regardless of her economic resources, should have the right to decide whether and when to have a child.”
Current New York Abortion Access Fund board member Eesha Pandit said in an interview, “We try, very much, to help everyone who calls.” All board members do phone intake, along with other volunteers. “We don’t ask them why they need an abortion, but women tell us: so they can finish school, continue their work, care for already-existing families. Economic questions are always in play in some way,” Pandit said.
“There’s the economic crash, people are losing health care, some women make too much to qualify for New York State Medicaid – sometimes just $100-$200 too much,” said Pandit. With a difficult economic climate, abortion providers have also seen abortion needs rise. The National Network leads the Coalition to Repeal Hyde to end the effects of the Hyde Amendment’s 35-year ban on Medicaid funding for abortion.
The anti-choice people are “insidious” and off-track, said Pandit. “They claim that women are selfish and are making poor moral decisions, but we hear complicated and deeply personal reasons.” One recent caller said her husband was in the military and abortions were not covered by his insurance. Another woman got health care through her parents, but her father was a postal worker, whose government policy did not cover abortion.
Other women come to New York from other states when abortion procedures are inaccessible because of restrictive laws at home and fewer providers. In many cases, NYAAF works with volunteers from Haven, which helps needy out-of-state abortion patients with housing.
Even $50 can make a difference for someone being able to get an abortion when she needs it, Pandit noted. She recalls one woman who called NYAAF. “She had just started school and wanted to be a journalist. She had no insurance and was paying for school herself. She needed $50-$75 for the procedure. We were able to provide it, she had the abortion and returned to class the next day. She called us the next week and told us she had had her procedure. She said, ‘I feel good about it,’ and that she planned to write about it when she became a journalist.” Pandit added, “Here was a young woman trying to navigate her life and live it as best she could. And we were able to help her do that.”
On April 29, 2012, abortion funds across the country, including those in New York and New Jersey, are sponsoring the Third Annual National Abortion Access Bowl-a-Thon, which has been a substantial source of funding for many programs. But Pandit says that NYAAF’s role extends beyond raising funds. “To be part of something that is able to fill this healthcare gap for women is very important,” said Pandit. She continued: “It is transformative for the people involved and politically powerful, as well. Our legislators have not made it happen, so we are.”