Commentary Abortion

What One Week on an Abortion Fund Hotline Taught Me About the Economics of Stigma

Jessica Mack

To say abortion is stigmatized in this country is to state the obvious. But we have a special brand of taboo that we foist atop even that stigma, which is the taboo of having someone else pay for a service you need – especially if it’s an abortion. Yet while abortion may be legal, but if you cannot afford it, it’s inaccessible.

Here in the US, where Americans spend an average of $110 million on fast food each year, some will spend $10,000 for breast implants, and still others will drop $90 on yoga pants, somehow covering the costs of an abortion is one of the most lavish and morally egregious things you can do. Recently, I completed my first shift as a hotline advocate for the CAIR Project, where we proudly do just that.

The CAIR Project is a volunteer-run non-profit abortion fund, which provides financial help to women seeking abortions. It is part of the National Network of Abortion Funds. Women call us from Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington and we help them with small grants of $50 to $200 (vouchers are faxed directly to the clinic, so no money changes hands).

If you want to witness the collision of poverty in America, sexual health stigma, and the fissures in our healthcare system, volunteer for an abortion fund. Granting money is a privilege, and doing it for something so critical as abortion access – so heavily under assault in this country – is an honor. And if you want to counteract anti-women sentiment and policies in this country, donate to one. Abortion may be legal, but if you cannot afford it, it is not accessible. 

For a week, I fielded about six calls a day from women across the Pacific Northwest. These were women in tight spots: in high school, homeless, unemployed, undocumented, disabled, down on their luck, about to head into the army, just found out their wanted pregnancy had a fatal defect, rape survivors, or just having a hard time pulling together several hundreds of dollars in a few days. It really ran the gamut.

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To say abortion is stigmatized in this country is to state the obvious. But we have a special brand of taboo that we foist atop even that stigma, which is the taboo of having someone else pay for a service you need – especially if it’s an abortion. Three years after Roe v. Wade, the Hyde Amendment was passed in 1976, prohibiting federal Medicaid coverage of abortion, in most circumstances. It was in this spirit that the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act was passed last year. And if you think the US would only limit financial support for women seeking abortions in the US, you’re wrong. The Helms Amendment, passed in 1973, makes sure that not a dime of US foreign aid goes toward abortion services in other countries – even if it’s legal and even if unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal death. In fact, the failure to provide funding and program support for those conditions for which even Helms allows exceptions means that women who have been raped — such as victims of rape in war — and those whose lives are threatened by pregnancies gone terribly wrong are denied support by U.S.-funded programs.

The idea that an abortion shouldn’t be paid for by the government comes from the broader stigma of abortion – that it’s a luxurious service we seek after we (women) do something bad. It’s this notion that receiving financial aid for the consequences of our promiscuity or carelessness only reinforces for lack of virtue. Or, more simply put, it’s a financial slut- shaming.

Yet spend a week on an abortion fund hot-line and you will awaken to the reality of abortion and economics, and believe me, it’s not what you might think:

Myth #1: Women who need help paying for their abortions for are “gold diggers” or just looking for a hand-out

Abortion funds are critical safety nets, but we are not made of money. The funding we offer women is nominal and more often we offer financial advice. Far from expecting or receiving full funding, women almost always come up with some money themselves, even if it’s just $6, and go to great lengths to do so. Women regularly borrow money from friends or family (not an easy thing to do); one woman had her dog up for sale, while others try to sell DVDs or jewelry. Some put off rent, delay other bills, or take out credit cards. Some women reschedule their abortion procedures for the following week just to give themselves more time to raise funds.

Myth #2: Women are happy to have their abortions subsidized and they expect it (or will lie to get financial help)

Every woman I spoke to was extremely stressed out. No one was happy to be calling a financial services helpline (though they were grateful it existed). Not being able to afford something that you need and want is tough. Not being able to afford something you really need is excruciating. Over the phone line, I heard a client reflect back to me the stigma that society had placed on her. After explaining that we could not provide full funding for her procedure (only because we didn’t have enough money), she interrupted apologetically: “Of course! And I wouldn’t expect you to have to pay for my abortion.” Because society tells us that if we as sexually active women make our bed, we’ve got to lie in it. One grant I doled out was $54. The woman at the other end of the line could not have been more grateful. There is no entitlement – although I wish we lived in a society were women could feel entitled to have their abortions paid for – but rather women are truly appreciative for any support. (Did you hear that, Kanye West?)

Myth #3: If a woman can’t afford an abortion, it’s her own fault and she should bear the consequences

Though the consequences of an unintended pregnancy are most often borne by a woman along, she did not get to pregnancy alone. In short, it is not the woman who fails, but rather it is an entire society that fails her. What causes unintended pregnancies? Sometimes a women can’t afford birth control, which in this country is hidden at the end of an expensive obstacle course of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions. In other cases, inadequate sex education has left individuals ill-equipped to navigate sexual risks. And sometimes a woman was raped. Sometimes birth control just doesn’t work. And finally, it’s often state policies that put women in precarious positions. For example, there are only two abortion clinics in Idaho, which means women may have a day’s drive to get to an appointment. In addition, state law mandates an informed consent class followed by a 24-hour waiting period. That’s gas or bus fare, a hotel room, and possibly childcare. These intrusive policies create additional financial hurdles for women and mean any given abortion will be later and possibly more expensive than without such obstacles.

Myth #4: Abortion clinics are only in it for the money

This is a favorite punch line among anti-choice advocates, but unfortunately it’s just not true. How much does an abortion cost? Well, it ranges from about $500 to more than $5,000, depending on the stage of the pregnancy and other factors. But almost all of the abortion clinics we work with will do whatever they can to help a client out of a tough financial situation. Some clinics offer payment programs. Others will simply eat the cost, especially if a woman needs an abortion for a health reasons. More often, clinics offer immediate discounts for their services. That’s right, an abortion discount. Doesn’t sound like a very successful business model, right? That’ because it’s not a business, but is about women’s rights, lives, and futures. Bottom line. 

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

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