In the first months of 2008, the New York Abortion Access Fund (NYAAF) was feeling so flush that the Board sent a letter to every women’s health center in New York State offering financial help. “Basically, we told clinics that if a woman came in wanting an abortion but didn’t have the money to pay for it, they shouldn’t turn her away but should call us instead,” says Leila Darabi, a Cobble Hill resident and one of ten NYAAF Board members. “At the time we felt we could fully fund most of the calls we were receiving.”
Then the recession hit, and the $1000 a week they’d been giving to needy women suddenly shrank to $500. At the same time, the number of calls to their hotline grew from three or four a week to between eight and ten. Despite NYAAF’s best efforts, as the economy tumbles, the number of unwanted pregnancies seems likely to rise.
The Fund began in 2001 when four New York City women decided to do what women throughout the rest of the country had begun doing decades earlier: raising money to pay for the abortions of low-income women who are unable to pay for them themselves. They quickly joined the National Network of Abortion Funds, a loose federation of 102 largely volunteer Funds scattered throughout 41 states and Canada. NYAAF has given away a little over $120,000 to approximately 300 women since launching eight years ago; last year alone the group distributed $44,000 to 71 recipients. All of the money comes from individual donors and, since Board members are unpaid and the organization has no staff, the group’s only overhead is for the answering machine that takes funding requests and for a once-a-year mailing to potential contributors.
According to NYAAF’s 2008 annual report, “The women that NYAAF funds are often too poor to pay for an abortion procedure, but not poor enough to obtain public health insurance coverage, such as Medicaid.” These women, 75 percent of whom live in New York State, often reside in areas with few options. Indeed, 87 percent of U.S. counties lack even one abortion provider, and even if there is a clinic nearby, women typically fear having to walk through a gauntlet of screaming protesters, something less common at city health centers. No surprise, then, that NYAAF has assisted women from Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Utah. While the typical woman contacting NYAAF is a parent in her twenties who has already scheduled a first-trimester procedure, a significant number have pregnancy complications that make the surgery more costly and more complicated.
Their stories can lacerate your heart and tear your soul.
There was Margaret, for example, a 35-year-old single mother of a 14-year-old son who worked as a nursing assistant in an upstate hospital and earned an annual salary of $35,000. Margaret knew that her cystic fibroids would make surgery tricky and doctors ultimately determined that she needed an in-hospital procedure that would cost $2300. Margaret had scrimped and saved, but had only managed to scrape together enough money to get from her upstate home to the city. After hearing her story, NYAAF found several donors willing to contribute to Margaret’s abortion, funding it in full.
Then there was Shaoling, an undocumented immigrant who didn’t know she was pregnant when she left China last fall. “She was living and working in the Midwest and when she told her boss she was pregnant, he told her, incorrectly, that she needed her boyfriend’s written permission to have an abortion. Since the boyfriend was still in China, Shaoling was at her wit’s end,” Board Chair Constance DeCherney reports. Somehow, she continues, Shaoling found her way to New York and a bilingual lab technician at the clinic told her about NYAAF. A slew of phone calls over the next several days led to a happy, and rare, ending. Shoaling received a free abortion from a local provider who was moved by her plight.
Amira, a 16-year-old high school sophomore whose parents knew she was pregnant and supported her decision to abort, had an equally dramatic story. Amira had a bowel problem that required surgical correction before the abortion could be performed. She’d been trying to find a doctor to do the surgery for at least two months, says Board member Karlin Mbah, and by the time she came to NYAAF’s attention she was 23.5 weeks pregnant, literally days away from the 24-week cutoff imposed by the state. “The family didn’t have a lot of resources,” Mbah says. “The dad worked in construction and the mom had recently been laid off so they were living paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t afford health insurance. We finally found a doctor affiliated with the Park Med clinic who had surgical privileges at Beth Israel Hospital.” He did both operations, Mbah says, with NYAAF footing the bill for a whopping $6500. Although this was the largest grant ever provided by the group, Mbah believes it was worth it. “Immediately afterwards I got a call that Amira was doing okay,” she explains. “She was healthy and able to go back to school and achieve what she needed to achieve.”
“This is an extreme story,” Mbah continues, “but even though other women have less extreme stories, it doesn’t mean it is easier for us to get money for them. For every woman who calls us, the situation is dire.”
NYAAF’s ten Board members, six of whom live in Brooklyn, agree. Each is on call once every ten weeks for seven days. During that time, she is responsible for checking NYAAF’s email and voicemail accounts; she also commits to contacting the caller within 24 hours. After learning about the woman’s situation and ascertaining the amount she needs, the Board member on duty determines who can be helped and how much she’ll receive. “Until recently, we had $1000 a week to spend, but since the worsening economy, we’ve had to cut back and these days we rarely pay the full cost for a woman’s surgery,” says Leila Darabi. “We try to take all the calls early in the week and then chart the women’s appointments and distribute the money in priority order.”
When need exceeds available funding—basically every week—NYAAF tries to help callers come up with alternatives. They also reach out to National Network of Abortion Funds in other parts of the country for possible collaboration. Several weeks ago, for example, they got a request from a Philadelphian who had scheduled an abortion at a New York City clinic. She said that the surgery was cheaper in New York, and even with travel costs, she would be saving money by coming here. She told the Board member that she had pulled together $100 herself, adding that the clinic had discounted the procedure by $50. But she still needed $275. After several phone calls, the Women’s Medical Fund of Philadelphia and NYAAF split the difference, thus enabling the caller to terminate her pregnancy.
NYAAF donors include the well-heeled and the barely-heeled, and the group constantly labors to raise funds for women who request them. From house parties to social events and book signings, the Board continually strives to keep the till as full as possible. Williamsburg resident Jennifer Baumgardner recently read from her latest book, Abortion & Life, and donated a percentage of the take to NYAAF. Similarly, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt brought sixty people into her Manhattan home just days after abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered, and raised more than $3500.
Kathy Lawrence, a writer and teacher whose parents taught her that abortion was murder, attended the event at Pollitt’s home but said that she had to grapple with her upbringing before agreeing to contribute to NYAAF . “I finally decided that I was on the side of women,” she states. “I have a lot of sisters, some of whom have had abortions, as well as a lot of female students. I want justice for them.”
In the end, say NYAAF Board members and supporters, it’s about expanding women’s reproductive choices. “The clinics who call us on a woman’s behalf, or the women who call us directly, are stressed by financial worries, wondering how they’ll pay for the surgery,” says Board member Leila Darabi.”When I talk to them and say ‘yes, we can help you,’ it’s such a high.”
Nonetheless Darabi and her colleagues don’t know what they’ll do if the Fund is unable to offer grants to the many who need them. “We reached out to clinics throughout the state before the economy tanked, when we felt confident that we could expand. Now we’re running out of money. The combination of a bad economy and our increased visibility has us worried.”
Contributions to keep NYAAF afloat can be sent to FDR Station, Post Office Box 7569, New York, NY 10150. More information is available at www.nyaaf.org or by calling 212.252.4757.
The names of all Fund recipients have been changed.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.