Money has always made it easier for some women to obtain a relatively safe (if illegal) abortion. Talk to women who came of age in the 1950s or 60s, decades before abortion became legal in the U.S., and you’ll hear tales of someone’s flight to Puerto Rico to have an abortion. Or suspicions that a respected doctor who was a family friend might have performed an abortion in a safe surgical operating room in the guise of an “appendectomy.” Whether the details are entirely accurate in these recollections, the theme rings true: women with access to money had a much better chance of also being able to access abortions. It’s shocking to realize that economic privilege is once again the reality of abortion access in the era of today’s Supreme Court. Today in the United States, if you are a person of means seeking an abortion, you can still get one. Everyone else? Good luck.
You may be wondering how this could possibly be true. How will money be able to circumvent laws and regulations that already severely limit reproductive rights in many states, and which point to an even more Draconian future? After all, Alabama and West Virginia recently passed anti-choice amendments, North Dakota and Mississippi each have only one abortion clinic, and even New York State’s abortion laws aren’t actually that great if you look closely. In addition, the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has pro-choice folks rightly alarmed—Roe v. Wade, the1973 Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal in the U.S. is already at risk of being overturned. Four states (Mississippi, Louisiana, North Dakota and South Dakota) have “trigger laws” in place which will automatically outlaw abortion if Roe is reversed; many other states have similar laws that will push the procedure to the very edge of legal possibility. And just because a state doesn’t have a trigger law on the books, that doesn’t mean it’s a safe haven—only a few states, like Massachusetts and New Mexico, have specifically declared they will protect abortion rights.
For many women, today’s reality already offers a window into life post-Roe. If you have money, it might not matter if there’s only one clinic in your state, or if laws in your jurisdiction ban abortions after, say, 15 weeks. Money will enable you to drive to that one last available clinic, take the day (or more than a day) of from work to have the procedure done, rent a hotel room if you need to stay overnight, provide childcare for the kids you statistically already have, or even leave the state—or country—to get an abortion if you need to.
Without the means to access these necessary aspects of obtaining an abortion, it doesn’t matter if abortion is technically legal, because it’s so out of reach.
Cue the 70 abortion funds that have sprung up over the last 25 years. Providing the bridge between having to carry an undesired pregnancy to term and being able to terminate the pregnancy, abortion funds are nonprofit organizations that offer financial and logistical help to women seeking an abortion. Some funding groups exclusively provide assistance in paying for the abortion itself, others cover the practical aspects of obtaining one (travel, childcare, translation services, etc.) in their purview, and some include funding for both. For women who rely on support from such abortion funds in order to get abortion care, what happens if Roe is legislated out of existence? What happens to abortion funds’ funding in places where abortion becomes illegal?
The answer: they become even more indispensable. “If abortion does become illegal in Alabama, we’ll simply set up relationships with clinics out of state and assist callers with funding for their procedures and travel, childcare, etc.,” says Amanda Reyes of the Yellowhammer Fund. “We already provide practical support in this way to several of our callers, so it will just become part of the regular process for assistance. I also imagine that funds in different states will probably coordinate state-level and regional volunteer support networks where folks can assist with rides and shelter if there isn’t funding for hotels and more.”
In fact, the rest of us may turn to the people who run abortion funds to learn how to navigate a world where abortion rights are on the edge of not existing. “Long term, abortion funds aren’t going anywhere,” confirms Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. “We are the experts in helping remove barriers for people accessing abortion, and that work includes culture shift as well as protecting and supporting those who self-manage their abortions.”
In Kentucky, only one abortion clinic remains, the EMW Women’s Center in Louisville. EMW Lexington location was shut down in January 2017. Marcie Krim is the executive director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network; in addition to its Trans Health Program, its abortion fund offers financial support for transportation, lodging, childcare, and other expenses. The fund’s 50 volunteers already drive people out of state, often to Illinois (four hours, round-trip), and also get women to Colorado and Maryland, where abortion care is available later in pregnancy than it is in the rest of the country.
If Roe goes, Krim says, “expenses will rise significantly.” But, she clarifies, they’ve already gone up, not just because of the closure of the Lexington clinic, but also because of abortion restrictions, like a 24-hour waiting period and the parental consent requirement for those under 18. Both these restrictions can mean the difference between ending a pregnancy in the first trimester and the second, when the procedure becomes more expensive. “The more laws,” Krim says, “the longer people have to wait for their abortion.”
She relays the story of a teenage girl she was driving to the airport for an abortion. “She told me, “Before I found you, I was going to try to do this myself.”
“We know that Roe has never been a promise for abortion access,” says Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF). While the idea of Roe being revoked is definitely disturbing, “those realities are what we’ve been navigating for decades.” The average abortion fund, she says, has an annual budget of $76,000, and only 29 out of the 70 abortion funds in the U.S. have a paid staff member, meaning they are primarily volunteer- run. “Currently, it’s middle-income white people who volunteer, and we want… to make sure that the people answering the phones reflect the identities of the people who are calling.” Hernandez adds that in 2017, out of the 150,000 calls being made to abortion funds, only 30,000 requests were funded. “Abortion funds need five times the amount of money they have,” she says. “This is an unprecedented time, and we need unprecedented resources.”
Where in this opportunity for action can we find the Jewish community? What support might be forthcoming from Jewish sources, particularly in light of the fact that Jewish law mandates saving the mother’s life over saving the fetus? My search for rabbis with discretionary funds who would be eager to donate some of that money to abortion funds, or to people in their own communities in need of abortion, came up empty. (I’m not ready to say they don’t exist, just that I couldn’t find them.) That’s because while abortion rights may be a talking point in Jewish circles, the financial aspect has yet to fully penetrate, activists say.
“I don’t hear mainstream, social-justice-oriented Jews talking about abortion access,” says Leah Greenblum, the Chicago community director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. She also funds abortion via her work with the Midwest Access Coalition (mac), a practical abortion fund, which provides assistance with an abortion’s ancillary costs. “It would be a nice thing if rabbis made themselves knowledgeable about what resources exist—do research, keep up with laws, barriers, listen to organizations like Planned Parenthood, naral, Guttmacher—and took their cues from them,” says Greenblum. “We can’t just be passive, we have to talk about abortion and how it’s interwoven with race, class, gender, geography, health- care.” Greenblum says that her AVODAH coworkers have been supportive of her work with mac, and after an October 2018 article Haaretz included her in a profile of American Jewish women working to expand abortion access, a rabbi in Chicago became a regular mac donor. “If, as Jews, we’re interested in true liberation, abortion has a place in that,” she says.
The action—or inaction—of Jewish men can tell us a lot about how seriously they take the concerns of Jewish women, like access to abortion, and ultimately, bodily autonomy, says Rabbi Ruti Regan.
Regan notes that during the Kavanaugh hearings she saw many Jewish women attending protests, but not a lot of Jewish men, or major Jewish organizations. “If we took Jewish women seriously as Jews,” she says, “we would see things like Kavanaugh’s appointment and assaults on reproductive justice as a threat to the community and not ‘just’ to women.” She adds that during those fraught days, she heard condescending lectures from Jewish men urging Jewish women not to “freak out” and to remain civil, “as if nothing catastrophic was happening, and women were expected to just get over things.”
The truth is that Jewish tradition runs counter to that patronizing “deal with it” sentiment, says Regan, giving us a spiritual framework to mourn our past losses collectively. But in order to regroup going forward, “we need it clear that we value Jewish women’s lives.” Her question for Jewish men as we march into this uncertain future for reproductive autonomy goes beyond financial matters. She asks if men are ready to recognize the deeper social value of standing up for women’s lives: “Do you still think women are human beings when defending them would cost you something?”
Chanel Dubofsky writes fiction and non-fiction in Brooklyn, NY.