The recent HB2 decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has meant a busy week in abortion access circles in Texas. Many of us on the ground were unprepared for such swift action. We were just adjusting to the 20 week ban which had come into effect, and were working to prepare for whatever came next.
Both the summer of action at the Capitol, and the swift motion of the court case, has awoken many people to the cause. We made jokes over the summer about taking a ship to international waters off the Gulf of Mexico where we’d have a doctor available to perform abortions. Joking was one of the only ways to shake the feeling that we were traveling back in time in an unexpectedly cruel way. It has been fantastic to see so many people rally, realizing a right we thought was secured by the Supreme Court was in such a vulnerable position. For many people it was the first time they stopped to think about the effects that could ripple through the lives of Texans.
I serve on the Lilith Fund board and run our hotline committee. I’ve been with Lilith for a year and a half. And I’m here to remind you of something that I feel is lost, even when we talk with our allies. Our clients are people. This isn’t just a cause. These are people’s lives, people’s families. Our clients are not just patients, stories, plantiffs, witnesses or data.
Passionate, well-meaning people from all over the country are calling and emailing Lilith to help, to donate, and we are beyond grateful. But when we get suggestions that we should start an “Abortion Underground Railroad,” we cringe. This is not slavery. This is not the time to appropriate the pain and suffering of generations of African Americans to try and comprehend our own. Many of our clients our Latina and African American. We refuse to add insult to injury.
People are calling the Lilith Fund to offer rooms and rides to support abortion access. We’re not the right people to talk to. There are practical support networks slowly growing around Texas to pool these resources. These networks will be critical in the next few months, especially with the danger of the “Ambulatory Surgical Center” requirements looming in September. We could be down to a handful of clinics, and travel will become an even larger problem.
But the scope of the issue, of people being denied abortion because of lack of resources, this is not new. It is exacerbated by HB2, not created. In just the last three years, we have been able to raise over $100,000 per year. Last year we provided over $80,000 in direct assistance to people who needed abortions. We do not come even close to meeting the state-wide need for financial assistance.
Even before HB2, Lilith was unable to meet the need of all our callers. We serve a portion of Texas (the rest is served by the Texas Equal Access fund). Our hotline is open 3 half days a week. Each shift we get between 15-30 calls. We can usually fund less than half of them. Our funds only cover a fraction of their abortion. For those who are earlier in pregnancy, perhaps we can cover a third of their procedure. For those further along we might only be able to cover a fifth, or a tenth. Our clients mostly get referred to us by clinics. We never even see those unable to reach a clinic.
The Lilith Fund has operated for over a decade. We work with our data to try and best meet our clients needs. We recently saw a dip in our redemption rate (how many clients actually redeemed their financial aid vouchers). Data analysis revealed what you might have guessed: higher voucher amounts lead to higher redemption rates. Giving higher vouchers means helping fewer people. But obviously an unredeemed voucher implies no help at all. We raised our voucher amounts.
Even this year, which has been an incredibly good fundraising year (for deeply frustrating reasons), we have nowhere near enough resources to meet the growing need for abortion funding. We talk to our clients to assess what their situation is, what other pressing needs they have. They may have a long way to travel. They may have children that need looking after. They may be struggling to get enough hours at work. There is not enough money to cover all their needs. When they call us they are already borrowing from friends, already pawning prized possessions. They are postponing their procedure a few more days till they get that next check, or taking from grocery money for a few weeks running.
When I give clients financial assistance vouchers, I am also giving practical support. My voucher frees up money for other things – maybe it is gas, or childcare. Maybe it is to pay rent. When I give a client funding for an abortion, I am trusting her to decide what she needs. I am respecting her. As a person.
I understand the urge to give things, to share resources. But I think it is crucial to examine our motivations, especially when we reach out to those in need. One of the biggest indignities of poverty is the loss of choice. Not being able to choose the food you feed your family, not being able to choose the gifts you give your children at Christmas. When I fund abortion, I hope that one of the things I’m giving is agency. I respect you to look at your available resources and do what is best.
Our clients are people. They are not just stories, or placeholders, or ways for us to channel our activism. They are people who deserve respect, kindness, agency, and support while they live their lives. This isn’t just a cause, or something they can walk away from or take a break from. This is their life. In this moment, I hope we can provide the support they need.