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"Travel patterns have shifted": the Chicago Abortion Fund on being a Midwest oasis of reproductive care
"People are just afraid, they're faced with a lot of misinformation."
At the end of June, the conservative Supreme Court decided Dobbs, overturning Roe v Wade and with it a constitutional right to abortion care. The result has been chaotic and, for many pregnant people, devastating. Though the legal landscape is constantly shifting, there are currently 15 states with sweeping abortion bans and at least five more that are likely to see bans instituted shortly. A congressional report already detailed increases in medical complications and adverse outcomes for pregnant women in states with bans. In one much reported case, a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio had to leave the state to receive abortion care.
The current crisis is new in its intensity and danger. But abortion rights have been under assault for a long time. Advocates and activists have put in place extensive networks and institutions designed to help those who need care and to protect abortion rights.
One such institution is the Chicago Abortion Fund. Founded in 1985, the fund’s mission is to provide “financial, logistical, and emotional support to people seeking abortion services.” It fields more than 500 calls a month from people seeking reproductive health care throughout the Midwest. Recently it has been working with people as far away as Texas and Arizona.
People at abortion funds are uniquely situated to observe how Dobbs has affected reproductive health care. I spoke to Alicia Hurtado, communications and advocacy manager at the Chicago Abortion Fund, about how the organization’s work has been affected by the Supreme Court decision, and how they plan to continue to fight for reproductive justice.
A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.
Could you tell me a little about what the fund's mission is? What does an abortion fund do?
In terms of what is an abortion fund, there's a quick and dirty answer: we fund abortions!
For the Chicago Abortion Fund, we are providing vouchers for folks to pay for their procedures. But also, there are myriad different barriers that people face in getting abortion care, especially at the intersections of race and class and ability. So we also help with any logistical barriers that folks are facing, and we provide emotional support for folks as they are navigating care.
In terms of logistical care, as bans are popping up, folks are having to travel across state lines to get care. But there are other things that we can help with as well. We help with hotels, with meals. We provide Ubers so people can get to and from the hotel to the clinic. We provide childcare. If they’re in a position where they’ve lost work to have the procedure, we can help with a mutual aid mini grant, which is typically $50.
We are currently able to support 100 percent of the people that we're reaching on our helpline. That can mean referring them to a fund in their community. It can mean we are helping them navigate insurance. Basically we’re meeting people's needs where they're at and helping them through this purposefully convoluted and complex landscape. Because it's confusing and scary.
How has the demand for your services expanded? Are you getting more callers now, and callers from further away?
Travel patterns have shifted quite a bit. We have heard from Texas callers since the six week ban last October. But now we’re seeing much higher representation of people from Wisconsin, which has a total ban, as well as from Ohio, which has a six week ban.
We also have been supporting sibling funds and other states so people can get care in their home states. So for example, Kentucky had a ban in place, and then the ban was blocked. So we’re trying to get people into clinics as fast as possible, especially in states that either have bans that have been temporarily blocked or are expected to have bans come down, just so that we can get as many people as possible into their appointments.
In Kentucky specifically, there was a three week period after the ban was blocked or temporarily lifted, where the National Abortion Federation actually wasn't sending funding to Kentucky. The National Abortion Federation has a pool of funding that supports folks who need financial assistance. We usually work in collaboration with them. And they stopped getting funding to Kentucky for three weeks due to legal concerns. So we were really stepping in at that moment and we provided a $10,000 block grant to the one independent clinic that is in Kentucky just to offset that loss in national funding.
We have been seeing both more callers and just generally more expensive cases in terms of having to help people travel. Prior to the Supreme Court decision leak, our budget was $16,000 a week. And then after the leaks happened, that jumped up to $25,000. And now post decision, we're spending anywhere from $40,000 to $45,000 a week.
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It's just been a very big expansion. I think some of that is, thankfully, that people know about us. So they're calling us asking for support. But also each case is definitely more complex. And we have a higher number of complex cases that need a lot of practical support to get to where their appointment is.
And then I think even beyond that people are just afraid, they're faced with a lot of misinformation. They don't know where abortion is legal, what kinds of criminalization they might face. They are scared that the law is going to come down and block them from their appointments. So a lot of what we're doing with the helpline is just talking people through their options, making sure we're getting accurate information, and also trying to assuage those fears.
Do you have legal concerns when you’re helping people in states with bans?
That is definitely a reality that we're facing. For us in Chicago, we’re fortunate that lawmakers are trying to respond to that threat. The mayor issued an executive order that provides protection for folks who are traveling to Chicago to get care, and also for folks who are either providers or who are working in support at places like abortion funds. The order helps prevent folks from getting arrested and makes sure that warrants that are issued aren’t honored. Law enforcement in Chicago isn't going to collaborate with providing information to other states.
And that's also something the city council is doing, though whether there will be statewide protection is still up in the air.
Could you talk a little more about what additional barriers to care you’re seeing for your callers?
In addition to travel times, I would say something else that is a barrier is capacity. Talking to our clinic partners, it's clear that they are scheduling appointments further out, just because there's more demand in terms of people coming to Illinois to access care. I think the estimations right now are 20,000 to 30,000 more people coming to Illinois annually for abortions if all of the predicted bans go into place.
I think that fear and misinformation is another barrier. We have 97 crisis pregnancy centers in Illinois, which are basically fake abortion clinics. They have either misinformation or not medically correct information on their websites. And they'll allude to the fact that they provide abortions, even though they don't. Those clinics are sometimes right next to actual abortion clinics. And if you’re traveling to Illinois for an abortion, coming to a new place is already disorienting enough.
And beyond that, directly following the decision, I was talking to a caller based in Iowa. We figured out funding and I was getting things together for her. But I hadn't heard from her for about a week after the Dobbs decision. So I reached back out and asked if she still wanted our support. And she responded by saying, “Oh, I thought abortion was illegal now.” Abortion hasn't ever been illegal in Iowa post Dobbs.
I was able to assure her that she could get care and she ended up getting the care that she needed in her home state. But I just think about who isn't reaching out to us because they are either being misinformed by people in their lives who are unsupportive, or they’re just confused because the laws keep changing, or they’re scared of criminalization or unsure or don't even know they can travel to another state to get care.
Have you gotten more support since the decision? Are you getting more donors and more volunteers?
We've seen waves of support. There was a wave post leak, and then there was wave after Dobbs came down. We’re still seeing amazing community fundraisers. Folks are really rallying to financially support us.
They’re also rallying to try to let people know what abortion funds are. And that’s important because if you don't know that abortion funds exist, you can’t tell people about them or get that information to people who need care. So people are sharing our social media posts. People are inviting their communities to small dinner parties or house parties where they talk about abortion funds. Everything from the huge fundraisers that we've seen to smaller community events — that’s all been really inspiring and amazing.
In terms of our expansion, we have a new cohort of volunteers that we onboarded the week of the decision dropping. We now have 35 people who are on our helpline. And we've increased our helpline capacity, both because we have volunteers and because we've just hired four new staff members who are going to be focused on our helpline.
We are really grateful that abortion funds are coming into the cultural consciousness and that people are very inspired to support organizations like us. We’re used to being scrappy, we're used to figuring out how to move money to continue to support 100 percent of the people that call us. But I guess my dream — well, my real dream is that people wouldn't need this kind of support. They would have the resources they need, abortion would be free, and people would be able to access it when they want it.
But the short term dream would be that support networks would be really well resourced — that we could do our work and know with certainty that we could always help everyone who needs our support. It’s heartbreaking to think there might be a point where we wouldn't be able to support 100 percent of the people that we speak to. And that’s always a possibility, especially now that we're seeing this huge increase in need. But we're hopeful that this is inspiring a long term investment in abortion funds.
What could the legislature in Illinois do to help protect abortion rights? I saw that there’s been some effort to expand the medical professionals who can perform abortions.
This is something that we've been thinking about, especially since clinics are seeing an increase in patients. We're kind of holding our breath hoping that folks aren't having to push their care too much, because the further along the pregnancy is, the more expensive the care may be.
Basically, right now advanced practice clinicians can prescribe abortion pills, but they don't currently perform procedural abortions. Illinois’ Reproductive Health Act does now have some language that alludes to allowing people who are not physicians to provide procedural abortions. [The governor still needs to clarify which medical professionals can provide this service.]
In Illinois, Medicaid covers abortion. So if folks have Medicaid, they call our helpline and we can say, this procedure is free. But people with private health insurance sometimes face really high co-pays and deductibles. In Illinois, the Reproductive Health Act mandated that abortion be covered at the same rate as other maternal health care. But if the insurance company is not based in Illinois, they don't have to follow that law. And honestly, fighting with private insurance takes a lot of time people just don't have when faced with a time sensitive procedure. I mean, we just paid a $3,500 bill for a caller that had private insurance just because it was impossible to deal with their insurance.
So something that we've been asking for or at least talking about is mandating zero dollar co-pays for abortion care for Illinois residents. Because that’s the biggest barrier we're seeing in terms of financial hardship on folks who are needing abortion care.
What do you think reproductive justice would look like in an ideal world?
What I envision is a world where every single person has the freedom and autonomy to create the lives they want, the families they want, and the communities they want. It’s a world where people, family, and communities are healthy, safe, and thriving. It’s a world where the full range of reproductive choices — whether that's abortion, contraception, access to contraceptives, sexual freedom — all of these things are accessible.
Their tears are delicious
Footage of Maria Bartiromo having no choice on Friday morning but to tout the “sizzling” July jobs report — 528,000 jobs were added to the US economy, far exceeding expectations, dropping the unemployment rate to 3.5 percent, lower than it ever was during the Trump administration — will get your weekend started on the right foot.
That’s it for today
Aaron will be back with more Monday. Until then, have a great weekend.