Texas abortion funds take on largest role yet in fight for reproductive rights

by | Jan 10, 2022 | Politics, Reproductive Rights

For two decades since gaining power, Texas Republicans have led a crusade against abortion.

They have been largely successful. Law after law has restricted access to abortions by targeting providers and their funding, or by adding more barriers to an ever-expanding list of requirements for abortion care.

The biggest Republican triumpth came in September when Senate Bill 8 became law, allowing private citizens in Texas to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, when ultrasound machines can produce sound from electrical signals that Republicans have mistakenly labeled a fetal heartbeat. 

As Gov. Greg Abbott so candidly put it, the legislation has “basically outlawed” abortion in the state.

While America’s finest conservative judicial minds ruminate over what “basically outlawed” means when it comes to this constitutional right, a vast majority of abortions in the state have come to a grinding halt in the four months since the law went into effect.

This is because a majority of would-be patients — approximately nine in ten according to most abortion providers — have already gone beyond the six-week threshold required by law, a window so short that most people aren’t aware they are pregnant, much less know that they are in danger of a state-imposed deadline that will force them to continue with a pregnancy or flee their home state for reproductive healthcare.

With abortion clinics around the state closing or turning away a majority of those seeking care, much of the responsibility for abortion access in Texas has shifted to abortion funds, groups that provide direct financial assistance to those seeking abortions.

These abortion funds, who have long operated under a government hostile to reproductive rights, now bear the weight of a world where Roe v. Wade is no longer felt. They are quickly becoming, if not already, the most robust form of abortion access that can still be offered in Texas.

Kamyon Conner, executive director of the nonprofit abortion fund Texas Equal Access Fund said their organization has seen an increase of Texans reaching out to their helpline in the wake of SB 8. 

The new law has created an undue burden for Texans that predominantly impacts communities of color, Conner said.

“We already know that folks couldn’t access the care they needed prior SB 8 due to the barriers and the few clinics that we had in the state,” Conner said, noting the rate of uninsured Texans.

Connor said she was aware of multiple instances where Texans seeking an abortion would go in for their state-required sonogram one day, but would have their day-of appointment canceled because another sonogram would pick up electrical signals.

In 2020, the Texas Equal Access Fund commited $400,218 to Texans seeking abortion. In 2021, the fund spent $608,088, an increase Conner said was attributed to the last quarter of the year when SB 8 went into effect. 

In part, this was because the fund had to serve more clients, but also because the average cost to help those clients has increased under SB 8. Since most Texans seeking an abortion must recieve care outside the state where clinics are experiencing longer and longer wait times, scheduling an early and low-cost abortion is more difficult.

Texas was already experiencing the same effect as a result of the dwindling number of abortion clinincs and mounting restrictions in the state. As Republicans pushed their advantage in the legislature, wait times around the state increased, and the cost of abortions have climbed.

A recent survey by the University of Texas’ Policy Evaluation Project found that wait times of at least two weeks are common for clinics in Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma where residents of the Lone Star State are fleeing for care. 

The same researchers found that prior to SB 8, the state’s existing abortion restrictions led to Texans attempting to end their own pregnancy at a rate higher than the national average.

“We know that we still haven’t helped everyone, we still haven’t been able to help every single person that’s called us,” Conner said. “We’ve not been able to help them with the total amount of their procedures. We’re still, for some folks, a drop in the bucket in helping them access that.”

To financially support every caller, the fund would need $1.5 million to help all callers access abortion care at a reasonable rate.

“That’s just for our helpline, that’s not including staff salaries and stuff like that,” Conner said. “And we’re one abortion fund in the state. There’s 10 of us.”

The Lilith Fund, the oldest abortion fund in Texas founded in 2001, a year after the Republican offensive against abortion began with Texas’ parental notification law, has also experienced an overwhelming number of clients seeking care outside the state and an increase in the cost to financially support those clients.

“We had to start reaching out to new providers that we had never worked with in different states, and we had to start talking to other abortion funds in other regions that we weren’t necessarily  used to working work with everyday,” said Amanda Beatriz Williams, executive director of the Lilith Fund. 

“This took time and we tried to do all of this preparation work ahead of time, but there’s such a heavy influx of callers going on in the state, it really required us to do far more outreach than we thought would be necessary,” Williams said. 

Testifying to the extreme impact of the law, Williams said one patient with the fund who was forced to travel out of state had never traveled by plane before. 

Some patients go as far as New York for care. Others go to GOP-led states like Florida and Georgia, also home to highly restrictive abortion laws. 

“You wouldn’t think that those would become safe havens for people that need access, but in reality we’re literally the worst state for abortion access in the country,” Williams said. “We have the most restrictive ban across the nation, so anywhere is better than Texas when it comes to accessing abortion care.”

Both funds have had to make drastic changes to adjust to the “aids and abets” portion of the law, which allows private citizens to sue anyone for $10,000 for helping with an illegal abortion — a “loophole” against federal judicial precedent that could only confuse the U.S. Supreme Court.

Aside from mounting a massive legal battle in federal court against the law, the funds have retrained volunteers and staff, updated or reexamined contracts and disclaimers, and done more to increase privacy and security for clients and staff.

“There’s just so many things we had to consider because we knew that we were the intended target,” Williams said. “I mean, you think about who is ‘aiding and abetting’ right  — who is helping people access abortion in Texas? Who are they after?”

“It’s us, it’s the people on the front lines everyday answering hotline calls from people who need help accessing care,” Williams said.

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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