Evelyn Griesse doesn't hesitate when asked to explain why she started the South Dakota Access for Every Woman Fund, a small, grassroots group that provides direct financial assistance to low-income women who need abortions. "I had an abortion myself," she begins. "It was 1971 or '72 and abortion was not yet legal in South Dakota. I'd seen an ad in The Ladies Home Journal that said, 'If you're pregnant and want info or help, call this number. 'It never used the word abortion but I called and was connected to a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Bronx. I was lucky. I had money, so was able to fly into New York for the procedure and fly out the next day. I did not go through any emotional anguish; I was simply relieved because I did not want to be a single mother."
Upon returning home, Griesse immersed herself in progressive activism, working with the ACLU and the National Women's Political Caucus, but says that she did not pay much attention to the politics surrounding abortion. Even after Illinois Republican Henry Hyde introduced an amendment to cut off Medicaid funding for the abortions of low-income women - unless they were raped, impregnated by incest or would die as a result of carrying the pregnancy to term - Griesse remained unfazed. Then, when the amendment passed Congress in 1977, the floodgates opened. By the early 1980s, Griesse understood that cutting off Medicaid funding was step one in what would become an all-out fight to slowly but surely deny abortion to all US women.
Nonetheless, it wasn't until the mid 1980s, nearly eight years after Hyde took effect, that Griesse acted on her feelings. "One day I got a call from someone I knew who worked at Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls," she recalls. "She asked me if I could do something to help a woman who could not afford the abortion she needed. The call let me see that I could do something directly, concretely, to make a difference."
Since that request, Griesse and a small circle of friends - they call themselves The Access for Every Woman Fund - have assisted 30 to 40 Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota residents a year. They also help women from other parts of the country who travel to these states, sometimes helping to defray the cost of surgery, sometimes contributing to pay for lodging or transportation.
The South Dakota group, part of the National Network of Abortion Funds [NNAF] - a Boston-based umbrella organization that links more than 100 funds scattered throughout the country - recently incorporated and intends to branch out, soliciting money more broadly to meet the skyrocketing number of requests that come their way. "Some of the women who call us live 300 or 400 miles from the closest clinic," Griesse says. "They usually don't have a car, or if they do, their car won't make it that far, so, on top of the cost of the abortion, they need to raise bus fare. Plus, in this area, weather is a big concern. Snow and ice often cause travel delays for doctors as well as patients and a woman may have to find a place to stay before she can have her abortion and return home."
And weather is the least of it. When Griesse begins to speak about the women the fund has helped, her voice gets softer and the stories she tells become more and more heartbreaking: There was the 23-year-old who needed an abortion before she could start chemotherapy, the 43-year-old mother of five who'd lost her job, the community college student who was struggling to pay her tuition, the 31-year-old victim of contraceptive failure and the abused teen living on the street.
Answering fund hotlines is not for the faint of heart, says Lindsey O-Pries, NNAF's member support coordinator. But it is certainly rewarding. Although NNAF administers the George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund, which earmarks grants for late-term surgeries, local funds turn to NNAF for a savvy blend of empathy and technical know-how. National staff, say community-based activists, are always there with a receptive ear, whether it's to discuss thorny cases or help strategize ways to raise needed revenue.
"There isn't one model for the Funds," O-Pries adds. "There are Funds that give out $1000 to $2000 a year and Funds that disburse $250,000, but the average runs between $20,000 and $80,000 annually." In addition, some funds have paid staff while others rely on volunteers. That said, there are some constants. "None of the Funds can say 'yes' every time a woman calls and few Funds pay the entire cost of surgery," O-Pries admits. In fact, statistics for 2009-2010 are sobering: While $2.8 million was provided by the funds, only a fraction of total callers, 21,844 of 124,317, were aided.
"Grassroots Abortion Funds can never fill the gap created by politicians who blocked low-income women from having abortion covered by the Medicaid program 35 years ago," says Stephanie Poggi, NNAF's executive director. "As proud as we are of our work, we know that we only meet a small percentage of the overall need."
Worse, as the economy has floundered, the work of abortion funds has become increasingly difficult. "Ten years ago the callers were typically women who had lost their jobs," O-Pries continues. "Now the intensity is increasing. She not only lost her job; she is homeless, and has three kids. This, of course, makes it much harder to make a dent."
This reality has forced NNAF to organize opposition to the Hyde Amendment - and has moved the organization beyond the exclusive provision of direct aid. In 2007 - Hyde's 30th anniversary - the group pulled together a coalition that continues to labor for an end to the funding ban. NNAF is also involved at the state level to protect funding in the 15 states that currently pay for the procedure.
Still, despite this advocacy, NNAF's primary focus is the individual funds; staff also fundraise to supplement money raised by local projects - whether they are autonomous, are programs of other organizations or are sponsored by a particular health center. The Roe Fund, for example, is a project of the Oklahoma chapter of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. The fund distributes approximately $1,800 a month. "We have donors who give us $25 and others who give us $500 once or twice a year," says fund member Sue Ames. "Once a year, several congregations take up a collection. We also run a signature ad in The Tulsa World and Oklahoma Gazette each January 22nd, the anniversary of the Roe decision. In 2012, we had 500 signers and we asked each of them to contribute $39 to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the ruling."
The Feminist Women's Health Center in Concord, New Hampshire, operates three in-house funds: One to pay for the gynecological care of uninsured patients; another to provide HIV testing; and a third, called The Joan Fund, to help pay for abortion care. "In 2011, we assisted 72 clients," says Dalia Vidunas, executive director of the 38-year-old clinic. "The grants ranged from $25 to $200. The amount depends on what the client needs, yet we don't want someone to not go through with a procedure that is in their best interest because they're poor. To not have a choice because of money is horrible." Vidunas says that she routinely does outreach to other funds in an effort to cobble together a larger grant - something NNAF encourages.
"We recently had a call from a homeless shelter," she says. "One of their residents was pregnant and had some serious mental health issues. She recognized that this was not the right time for her to have a child. We worked with her for several weeks. A local church came up with some money, as did another Abortion Fund. In the end, we were able to tap a few places, provide the abortion, and set her up with other resources. She has since returned to the clinic for post-operative gynecological care and we expect her to be our patient for a long, long time."
Vidunas reports that this woman's relief - not only at being able to terminate her pregnancy but also to receive ongoing health care in a woman-centered space - was palpable. Indeed, Vidunas, Griesse, Ames and NNAF staffers agree that one of the most heartening aspects of this work is the appreciation expressed by the women themselves. "I am a college student and am positive I will one day be able to give back to the Fund. I am so thankful to you," one grantee wrote to the Roe Fund's Sue Ames. "You've helped me to better myself in this very hard time. I am grateful and will never forget," wrote another.
But acknowledgement aside, abortion fund activists understand that private philanthropy, no matter now generous, can never alleviate poverty or stem unequal access to health care. What's more, escalating health insurance deductibles may soon mean that funds will be asked to meet the needs of a new constituency: Those who have to pay for their abortions out of pocket because they have not met the required $1,000 to $2,500 expenditure.