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Abortion Funds Enable Access: The Time to Invest in Direct Aid Is Now

Abortion funds often serve as a primary support system for patients navigating barriers to access.

View the entire Abortion Rights Are Essential to Democracy series

With a loom­ing Supreme Court ruling that could over­turn or severely under­mine Roe v. Wade, legis­latures in 26 states are poised to move quickly to outlaw abor­tion if given the green light. This seem­ingly dysto­pian real­ity has been years in the making. The 2021 legis­lat­ive session saw the passage of over 100 abor­tion restric­tions—more than in any other year since Roe was decided. At present, nearly 60 percent of the popu­la­tion lives in a state that is hostile or extremely hostile to abor­tion rights. 

A robust and multi­fa­ceted coali­tion contin­ues to fight for abor­tion rights in the courts, Congress and state legis­latures. Crit­ical to this move­ment are local abor­tion fund­s—on-the-ground groups and networks that provide dollars to directly cover the cost of abor­tion proced­ures, as well as support for collat­eral needs like trans­port­a­tion, lodging, food, child­care and doula services. 

Abor­tion funds often serve as an initial point of contact and primary support system for patients navig­at­ing myriad barri­er­s—­from managing basic logist­ics, to debunk­ing misin­form­a­tion, to facing harass­ment and intim­id­a­tion at clin­ic­s—as well as state-proscribed hurdles like mandat­ory wait­ing peri­ods, parental consent or judi­cial bypass provi­sions. And they play a crucial advocacy role in address­ing those most impacted by these restrict­ive laws, center­ing low-income, young, and communit­ies of color, among others. The National Network of Abor­tion Funds (NNAF) power­fully calls out the need for such “organ­iz­ing at the inter­sec­tions of racial, economic and repro­duct­ive justice.” 

Despite the clear and present need for the services they provide, a Janu­ary 2021 report issued by the National Commit­tee for Respons­ive Phil­an­thropy found that found­a­tion support for abor­tion funds occu­pies only a small frac­tion—just 3 percent­—of the over­all phil­an­thropic commit­ment to repro­duct­ive rights initi­at­ives nation­wide. 

Compound­ing the prob­lem of under­in­vest­ment is the “boom/bust” dynamic. In Septem­ber, for example, as abor­tion access plummeted in Texas after S.B. 8 went into effect, an alarmed public reacted and dona­tions to local abor­tion funds tempor­ar­ily soared. But just one year prior in 2020, several abor­tion funds repor­ted having lost major support as donors’ prior­it­ies shif­ted to other emer­gen­cies. Such incon­sist­ency is unten­able for effect­ive plan­ning and service, even in normal times. And the road ahead is going to be anything but. 

Current predic­tions estim­ate that close to half (41 percent) of the popu­la­tion who might need an abor­tion can expect to see their nearest clinic close if Roe is over­turned; the aver­age travel distance to a clinic in the United States would skyrocket from 35 to 279 miles

Among other health and safety hazards caused by increased distance, it also makes abor­tions more expens­ive. Take Texas as a real-time example, using stat­ist­ics provided by the Guttmacher Insti­tute. Under the require­ments of S.B. 8, the aver­age one-way driv­ing distance to a clinic that can provide abor­tions after six weeks has now increased from 17 miles to 247 miles. Someone earn­ing minimum wage—$7.25 an hour in Texas—­would have to devote a full day’s earn­ings just to cover the cost of gas for the round-trip route. 

And since for most Texans the nearest out-of-state clin­ics are now in Louisi­ana or Oklahoma or Arkansas—states that also have policies that make abor­tion exceed­ingly hard to obtain—the travel and cost equa­tion will likely worsen in the near future.  

Expan­ded invest­ment in abor­tion funds is urgently needed to keep up with current demand for direct aid, as well as to prepare for an uncer­tain and surely more chal­len­ging future. In 2020, NNAF repor­ted that it was able to serve just 44,000 of 230,000 requests for help. And as more than 35 local abor­tion funds recently wrote in a “friend-of-the-court” brief to the Supreme Court, patients’ finan­cial needs are often greater than the amount that can be provided.  

Further, as states double-down on crim­in­al­iz­ing abor­tion and those who provide help obtain­ing them, new types of organ­iz­a­tions like abor­tion bail funds must also be incor­por­ated into the phil­an­thropic approach. At the same time, certain states will likely emerge as abor­tion safe havens, and local and state groups and govern­ments there must be equipped and resourced to ensure that access extends to people who reside outside their borders.

Prior­it­iz­ing support for abor­tion funds is an essen­tial compan­ion to fund­ing national and state-based legal and policy advocacy campaigns. Much like many allied move­ments have commit­ted to align­ing their stra­tegic action and resources—­for example, by help­ing voters register, pay fees and navig­ate restric­tions while advan­cing proact­ive policies that expand the fran­chise—a holistic approach makes for smart, effect­ive phil­an­thropy in the abor­tion context too. 

Cent­ral to the defense of repro­duct­ive rights for all must be the provi­sion of and commit­ment to direct aid to the communit­ies facing those attacks head-on.