As Costs and Demand Skyrocket, Abortion Funds Struggle to Keep Up

As Costs and Demand Skyrocket, Abortion Funds Struggle to Keep Up

As Costs and Demand Skyrocket, Abortion Funds Struggle to Keep Up

Abortion funds received a huge wave of donations in the aftermath of Dobbs. But that initial swell has receded even as demand for help have both dramatically increased.

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In the year before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and allowed states to ban abortion with its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund in Florida assisted about 400 callers. “For us that was a big deal, that was great,” said board member McKenna Kelley. Its monthly budget was just a few thousand dollars, “and we stuck to it.” The fund usually only needed to cover the cost of a caller’s procedure; when they offered practical support with the logistics of getting to an appointment, that mostly entailed helping drive people to and from local clinics. “No one needed to travel,” she said.

Then, in the summer of 2022, Dobbs changed everything. The fund was dealing with the simultaneous earthquakes of abortion restrictions rippling through the country, particularly the South, while at the same time watching “huge influxes of rage donations” roll in, Kelley said. “We saw donations coming in from all over the country and that was really amazing.”

For the first few months the fund was able to save all that new money, as demand didn’t jump immediately. So its board members felt prepared when the call volume picked up at the end of last year. The fund expanded its coverage area to surrounding counties, and began funding travel costs not just for the person who needed an abortion but also a support person like a spouse or a parent. “All those donations we got last year gave us a lot of room to really give our callers whatever they needed,” Kelley said.

This summer the picture dramatically changed yet again. That’s when “we realized that donations had really dropped off a cliff,” Kelley said. “The pace we were spending was in no way being matched by the donations we were receiving.” The post-Dobbs donation deluge had slowed to a trickle. That led to the difficult decision to completely close the fund from mid-September to mid-October for the first time “in a very long time,” she said. The fund is now back open, but it’s had to significantly scale back its pledge sizes and services to be able to stick its now much lower monthly budget.

The Tampa Bay Abortion Fund’s experience is not unique. Abortion funds across the country, which help callers with the costs of both abortion procedures and the costs of getting to and from appointments, received a huge wave of donations in the aftermath of Dobbs, as Americans, outraged at being stripped of a constitutional right, channeled their anger into action. But many funds got one-time-only donations, and that initial swell receded as the issue faded from the headlines, even as demand for help, and the costs of aiding each individual person, have both continued dramatically increasing. About half of women who have abortions live below the meager federal poverty line, and those in the 21 states that have banned or severely restricted abortion since Dobbs are now facing much higher costs like airfare and hotel stays.

The combination of factors has forced abortion funds to make difficult decisions in recent months. Mountain Access Brigade in Tennessee had to close for a week and a half in July, and the Utah Abortion Fund closed from July 18 to August 21. In September the Arkansas Abortion Support Network had to temporarily close its travel fund. Indigenous Women Rising’s abortion fund for Native and Indigenous people is closed from December 1 to January 8. Christine Montero, a health-line coordinator at ARC-Southeast, which works with other funds to help people in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee, noted that often “the majority of other funds are closed” at the end of the month.

The Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund (MRFF) had to close in August and will remain shuttered until at least January after similarly dealing with “higher need” and “lower donations,” said Executive Director Laurie Bertram Roberts. For two months before closing, she had run the fund off of her personal credit card, which racked her up thousands of dollars in debt. Its closure hasn’t stopped callers from reaching out; when we spoke in late September, the helpline had received four voicemails that morning from people who needed to leave the state to get abortions. All she can do now is refer them to other funds.

Before Dobbs, most callers to MRFF would only need $50 to $100 for food and gas money. Now, costs are anywhere from $800 to $1,000. Most people in the state are making the 10-hour drive to Carbondale, Ill., which is a two-day trip, requiring a lot of money for food, gas, and lodging. Many callers need help getting a winter coat to go somewhere north. Some need help getting an ID if they have to fly. “We’re talking about car rentals. We’re talking about money for childcare. We’re talking about big money,” Roberts said.

The fund will be able to reopen at the start of next year only if it gets enough end-of-year donations. That, Roberts said, will hopefully get it to the fund-a-thon that the National Network of Abortion Funds holds in the spring. Even so, she expects the fund to be open for only half of each month once it’s once again operational.

Florida, which currently bans abortion after 15 weeks, neighbors a number of states that have either outright banned abortion or, in the case of Georgia and South Carolina, ban it after six weeks, before few people know they’re pregnant. So the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund is now assisting a huge universe of people: locals who need help getting an abortion before 15 weeks in their state, others beyond that limit who need to travel elsewhere, and people from other Southern states coming into the area before the cutoff who have to also contend with the state’s 24-hour waiting period, which went into effect just months before Dobbs.

Demand for the fund’s help has skyrocketed. It received double the number of calls in 2022 that it did in 2021, and in 2022 it funded 1,008 people, double the number it funded the year prior. As of mid-November, it had already funded 2,400 people this year. Each patient also needs a lot more money than they they would have pre-Dobbs.

Since reopening, the fund is serving only two counties, which cover Clearwater, Tampa, and St. Petersburg, and has also cut down on the number of clinics it works with in the area. It can rarely fund a support person to accompany a caller. It’s cut its monthly budget for how much it can offer callers from $100,000, in the well-funded days post-Dobbs, to $55,000. “We think that is going to be doable for the foreseeable future,” Kelley said.

The Baltimore Abortion Fund (BAF) is similarly contending with a big drop in donations. In 2022 it had a “record-breaking year,” said Director of Development & Communications Lynn McCann-Yeh, bringing in $3.5 million. But now that number has fallen by half—as it closes in on the end of its fiscal year, it’s only received $1.6 million. Meanwhile, the total cost of its clients’ procedures, not even counting logistical support, came to over $6 million this year. Funding gaps have serious consequences. The fund has noticed that when a client can’t cobble together all of the money they need to cover the procedure and other necessities by the day of their appointment, “often that means that they have to cancel and reschedule or sometimes it means they no show,” she said. “There is an attrition rate.”

The fund was already experiencing a 40 percent increase in call volume annually in the years before Dobbs thanks to other states’ continuing to restrict the procedure even as Roe stood, especially because Maryland has clinics that provide abortions later in pregnancy. Then demand shot up even further after Dobbs. In 2021 the fund supported about 775 clients; this year it expects to support about 2,100. And callers need more: Not only are costs for each caller higher, but the ability to cover them is lower, thanks to inflation and the recent post-pandemic reduction in public benefits. The fund recently, for the first time ever, helped a client pay for new tires to be able to drive safely to an appointment. “It’s a big question for us of how to continue to grow and sustain our work knowing that this moment of national crisis has kind of passed in terms of awareness for the majority of the people,” said McCann-Yeh, even as “the pressures on people who need abortion care will only continue to become more intense as additional bans and legislation are passed.”

“This is really an urgent and ongoing public health crisis and we really need that consistent support to mitigate some of the harms that are being caused,” she added. “There’s still so much more that we could be doing and we really want to do.”

When funds can’t cover the full cost that someone is facing, as is routinely true for BAF, other funds typically step in to try to cover the rest. That’s what happened when the Tampa Bay Abortion Fund closed; other partner funds were able to help fill in the gap. But that’s the challenge: in the tight ecosystem of abortion funds, one fund’s closure or financial challenges reverberates at all the others. “Sometimes it feels like we’re passing around the same $20 and trying to stretch that $20 into $200,” McCann-Yeh said. ARC saw an influx of over 8,000 new donors in the wake of Dobbs and was lucky enough that most were recurring, plus it started receiving grants from corporations and foundations, so it’s been able to maintain a stable financial situation. Still, when partner funds shut down, “it definitely affects us, and the need is definitely not decreasing at all,” Montero, the health-line coordinator, said.

Nor are costs. Montero noted that any time a state further restricts abortion it makes things more complicated and costly for people seeking abortions anywhere else. Their fund often helps people get to North Carolina, for example, but in May the state legislature reduced its ban from 20 weeks to 12 while also mandating a 72-hour waiting period, which means more travel costs for people seeking abortions from out of state.

ACCESS Reproductive Justice in California was also lucky enough to mostly receive recurring donations in the wake of Dobbs. Online donations nearly doubled, and almost 80 percent were recurring. “We’ve seen a little falloff, but nothing like I anticipated,” said Executive Director Jessica Pinckney Gil. Her fund also benefits from something else: public money. In 2022 California lawmakers dedicated $20 million in grants to organizations that provide practical support for people both in and outside of California who seek abortions, including ACCESS. It also established and funded a Los Angeles County “abortion safe haven” program that, in addition to other services, provides practical support to patients seeking abortion. “We’re in a unique place because we do have the practical support funding from the state, so we’re able to fully fund right now people’s travel, lodging, transportation, childcare, food, all of those needs,” she said. That’s been true even as the fund has been helping more people who are coming from out of state.

But the public funding only covers logistics, not procedures, which the fund isn’t able to fully cover. It relies on other funds and clinics to fill the gap. To be able to fully cover the cost of abortions themselves, ACCESS would need an additional $450,000–$500,000 a year, Gil estimated. State funding will also run out at some point.

Public funding has also helped the Baltimore Abortion Fund. Last year Montgomery County dedicated $1 million in public funding to local organizations supporting people getting abortions in the area. The fund received some of that money, which allowed it to increase the maximum amount it could give to each caller. That meant it could fully fund some people, especially those in their first trimester whose procedures cost less. “That really speaks to the need for comprehensive and full funding,” McCann-Yeh said. Yet, even with the county funding, BAF fell far short of providing every caller with everything they needed. To do that, and to have enough staff to support so many callers, would require $10 million at a minimum, she said.

The Tampa Bay Abortion Fund is bracing for things to get worse. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a six-week ban into law in April, although it won’t go into effect until the state Supreme Court rules on its 15-week ban, which is currently being challenged. The fund is anticipating that such a ruling could come down “any time,” Kelley said, and if the state court rules in favor of the abortion ban, that will only make each abortion more expensive—under a six-week ban she anticipates switching to almost entirely funding people to travel out of state. The fund estimates that with a six-week ban in place, each offer of practical support will come to about $1,100.

Since Dobbs, seven states, including California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, Ohio, and Vermont, have voted on ballot initiatives focused on abortion, which, Kelley noted, have drawn a lot of press attention as well as a lot of financial firepower. Though those measures are critical, she said, abortion funds are making sure people can get abortions all over the country in real time. In her own state, voters will weigh in on an abortion rights initiative next fall, but even if it were to pass and go into effect, “that’s over a year away. People need access now,” she noted. “If people are concerned about abortion access and helping people get abortions, funds are doing that every single day, day in and day out.”

Roberts thinks that many donors might be uncomfortable giving to grassroots organizations instead of political advocacy operations. Funds “may not be a polished nonprofit industrial complex nonprofit, because they’re not,” she said. Many, like hers, are run by low-income people, and she sees “a discomfort with giving low-income people money.”

“What our movement really needs right now is for folks to donate, especially in a consistent and ongoing way,” McCann-Yeh said. “Our movement for reproductive freedom is ongoing and will continue to extend past the news cycle and headlines.”

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