This spring, getting involved in the reproductive rights movement is as simple as bowling to strike down abortion barriers during the National Abortion Access Bowl-a-Thon. The annual Bowl-a-Thon consists of bowling marathons, games, and virtual events held nationwide each April to support abortion funding organizations in their mission to help remove financial and logistical barriers to abortion. But when the funds are raised and the bowling shoes come off, what happens next?
As someone who serves on the board of the New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF), I am often asked this exact question. At a time when abortion care is under attack, it is more important than ever for people to have a clear understanding of what funds do, whether that’s because you are interested in getting involved or want to know how volunteers work on a grassroots level to protect reproductive freedom. No matter the motivation, here is an insider’s look at the people who work to raise funds for abortion access.
Abortion funders work behind the scenes to help individuals with financial need pay for their abortion. While these mostly volunteer-run organizations have the same goal, their work depends on their individual guidelines, budget, volunteer capacity, and the local political and health-care climate. Services can include funding for an abortion; Medicaid enrollment assistance; referral to other health and social services; and transportation, food, and housing coverage for clients forced to travel to access an abortion.
“People working in abortion funds are on the front lines of [reproductive rights and justice],” said Amy Irvin, executive director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund. “We are talking to those most impacted, and living in the communities hurt most by unfair and unjust health-care policy.”
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When a client reaches out to an abortion fund—whether it’s via phone, email, website, or even Facebook—the first point of contact is often an intake case manager. These volunteers answer the helplines and work directly with clients, a health center, and other organizations to secure enough money to cover the cost of the abortion, which can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000.
Each abortion fund develops organically in response to the environment it operates in. There are days when the phone line is quiet and other days when the volume of calls is overwhelming for volunteers. Annually, each abortion fund has its own budget and parameters for its pledges–the money paid to health centers to fill the gap between what the patient can pay and the cost of the procedure. For smaller funds, the operating budget may be a few thousand dollars, and for more privileged funds, it may be over $100,000. The sad truth is that no matter how large the budget is, in many cases it’s not enough to cover every single person who needs help.
Like their organizations, abortion funders are a diverse cohort who come to this work with different experiences but with the same goal in mind: to help people access abortion care, no matter the size of their wallet.
In 2011, Ali Nininger-Finch, a North Carolina native and law student, was working at a reproductive health organization when a colleague told her about abortion funds. Although she enjoyed her office job, she wanted to do direct abortion service and make a positive impact on her community. She joined a group of self-described “abortion warriors” to co-found the Carolina Abortion Fund (CAF).
The work was rewarding, but the beginning was rocky, and included a lot of trial and error. In addition to the paperwork and legal considerations involved with starting any nonprofit, they had to develop a client intake system and funding policies, fight cyber hackings, and build relationships with health centers. When CAF launched, there was little promotion, but Nininger-Finch said the volume of calls they received was–and still is–overwhelming.
“A lot of times, it was sad. In the beginning, I got off the phone and I just wanted to cry because I had to tell someone no,” she said. “It hurt my heart. I wanted to raise more money and shut the phone lines down until we could fund every abortion. But at the end of the day, the calls needed to be answered,” even if it was just to say no or listen to someone’s story.
My colleague Karla Salguero, a New York resident who works in nonprofit fundraising, serves as a case manager at NYAAF. As someone interested in feminism and reproductive justice, abortion funding was a natural volunteer choice for her.
For the past three years, Salguero has primarily worked as a case manager on the Spanish intake helpline, which she describes as markedly different from the English-language lines. Many of the clients are undocumented and uninsured, adding an extra layer of fear and anxiety to facing an unplanned pregnancy and being unable to pay for an abortion. As the daughter of Latinx immigrants, she is touched by this work in a familiar way.
“It’s compassionate work,” she said. “I just feel for the person on the other end [of the line]. “They have to trust me and sometimes I can’t convince them fully that we can help them [secure funding] until they’re at the clinic. But seeing the funding go through—being there when it happens—is amazing.”
Like Salguero, Lanai Daniels, a sex educator in New York, also worked as a case manager at NYAAF before joining the board of directors. As a self-identified queer Black woman, Daniels knew that she could provide a unique perspective and insight into the communities that are served by abortion funds.
“I intentionally stepped into a leadership position because I know that there weren’t many people who look like me in [that] role,” she said. “I try to use my voice as a Black woman to lift up the work that I and other women of color are committed to doing for the long haul.”
Daniels focuses on community organizing to break stigma among populations that are often underserved and sometimes forgotten. In addition to Bowl-a-Thon, she engages the community through movie screenings, interactive panels, and social media outreach. Sometimes, she said, reaching diverse populations is as easy as changing event locations to be more accessible to people in different boroughs of New York City.
Like each abortion funder I spoke to who had their own story, here’s mine. I became active in the movement for reproductive health, rights, and justice on my college campus more than a decade ago. Studying and living in Washington, D.C., I saw firsthand the tremendous effect that health inequity has on communities of color. Even after becoming a professional advocate for these issues, I always wanted to do more to positively affect people’s lives, so I joined the NYAAF board of directors.
Studies show that Black and Latinx people receive abortion care at higher rates than white people, due to issues like poverty and lack of access to quality sex education and contraceptives. As a woman of color, I connect with the people who come to NYAAF for help on a deeply personal level. They could be my friend, my sister, my mother, or–one day–my daughter. And if one or two things in my life were different, they could be me. One of the best ways I feel I can help empower communities of color is to protect our access to health care and each person’s ability to make their own decisions for their bodies, their lives, and their futures.
Abortion fund work can be difficult yet incredibly powerful. And the impact these volunteers have on their clients’ lives is undeniable–a fact that Tye, a mother and Georgia resident, can attest to. Tye, whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons, called NYAAF last year for financial assistance to end an unintended pregnancy. It’s not uncommon for people to come to New York for abortion services since the laws are more liberal than in many other states. At 21 weeks pregnant, abortion was no longer an option in Georgia, so Tye had to travel to New York for care.
The cost of her abortion was $6,000–an amount she knew she could not afford, until a friend recommended NYAAF. She reached out, not knowing what the outcome would be.
“My case manager called in the middle of the night and told me he got the approval to fund my abortion,” she said. “I started crying. I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it. This organization I knew nothing about actually saved my life.”