Earlier this month, the strictest abortion ban that Texas has seen was upheld by a federal appellate court. Under the new law, abortion providers would have to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and their clinics would have to meet hospital-like building standards. (Such standards include hallways wide enough to fit hospital beds, janitor closets, and new air filter systems.) This ban, known as House Bill 2, would shut down clinics that do not comply with new standards, leaving just eight clinics open in the nation's second most populous state. It is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.
Abortion providers have asked the court to put its decision on hold until they can appeal to the Supreme Court. While this ongoing policy battle plays out at the state and federal level, a grassroots movement is taking place in Texas to help increase access to abortion in one of the most direct ways possible. Activists are organizing to form abortion funds—raising money to give to women who need an abortion and cannot afford to pay for one.
Abortion funds are not new—there are national abortion funds, and before HB2 passed in 2013, there were at least two funds already in Texas. Now there are seven known funds—and their work is becoming increasingly important in a landscape where where 900,000 women will be more than 150 miles from an abortion provider in their state. That's part of the reason Alyssah Roth and Raquel Ortega founded the West Fund, the first abortion fund to specifically serve El Paso, Texas.
The West Fund was started in response to HB2, and has served 24 clients since they launched six months ago. While access to abortion will now be a challenge throughout the state, the issues are compounded in El Paso, a region of 2 million people that will be 550 miles from the nearest abortion clinic in Texas if HB2 goes into effect next month. Not to mention one in four women in the El Paso metro area live in poverty and poor women are both five times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy, and less likely to be able to afford an abortion than higher-income women.
We sat down with the West Fund's Raquel Ortega, Alyssah Roth, and one of their volunteers, Kalin Gregory-Davis, to talk about what challenges women face in El Paso, how to fundraise for an abortion, and the future of abortion access and activism in Texas.
VICE: Where did the idea for the West Fund come from?
Raquel Ortega: In the summer of 2013, Governor Rick Perry called a special session to pass a giant omnibus abortion bill—the one that Wendy Davis filibustered, and that was ultimately upheld by the appellate court. Back then, young people in El Paso were trying to organize and call their legislators in Austin, but alas, the bill passed. A few students from the local URGE [Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity] chapter that I work for came to me, and they were like, this is so shitty. All these clinics are closing, and we don't know what to do. Someone said, "I wish we could just give people money." And I said, "You should! You should do that."
Alyssah Roth: At that point, we started talking to other abortion funds, getting ideas, and in November 2013, we got all our paperwork in order and really started to take root.
Ortega: The idea came from the students, who weren't able to go to Austin and talk policy and meet with their legislatures, but who still wanted to make a difference in their community.
A big part of this is teaching people how to raise money for themselves. A lot of times, our people will call in and say, $500? That's a month of rent. That seems impossible. –Raquel Ortega
People often think Texas is the same all over. In reality, west Texas is so different and so far from Austin, and you found a way to do something really specific for this community. How do you decide how to use your funds?
Kalin Gregory-Davis: We try to spread our funds as much as we can. I would say we give somewhere between $80 and $120 per individual, sometimes $200, depending how much money we raise. We always try to ask if there are other ways they can raise the rest. I'll ask, "Are you working? Are there people in your life that you feel safe asking for money? Do you have things you can sell?"
Ortega: A big part of this is teaching people how to raise money for themselves. A lot of times, our people will call in and say, $500? That is literally a month of rent. That seems impossible. They'll say, "I only have $150." And then we say, "Have you tried reaching out to your friends? Ten dollars from ten friends will get you halfway to where you need to be."
Are there any common threads you've seen in the experiences of those who call in?
Gregory-Davis: For the most part, the people who reach out are in a lot of need. We get a lot of young people, or people who already have children. Most of the people I've spoken to are unemployed.
What are some of the other costs or challenges involved in seeking an abortion besides paying for the procedure?
Ortega: There are a lot of different people who seek out abortions, but there are very specific kinds of people who are targeted by abortion-restrictive policies, like young people or undocumented folks. In Texas, for example, you need notarized parental consent to seek an abortion, which can make it hard for people who might be facing abuse in the home. But Texas legislature just passed a bill last month that makes it even more difficult for young people to petition that law. It used to be that young people could submit an appeal for a judicial bypass, and if the judge didn't issue a ruling in two days, the appeal was deemed granted. Now, a judge has five days to respond, and if they don't, it's automatically deemed rejected.
If HB2 goes into effect in Texas, and a client starts out in El Paso, what are their options for getting an abortion?
Roth: If the two clinics in El Paso close, then the only options for people in El Paso are Las Cruces, Albuquerque, or San Antonio. Going to San Antonio is 1100 miles round trip, so the options in New Mexico are much closer—50 and 270 miles away. But there are still hurdles in crossing state lines. Not everyone is allowed to cross state lines, for example someone who's on parole. If someone doesn't own a car and has to rely on a partner to drive them, and their partner is on parole, then how does that person get to New Mexico? There is a US Border Patrol checkpoint between here and Las Cruces, which makes it harder for undocumented folks to get there.
Do you think this abortion ban will increase the need for the West Fund and other funds across Texas?
Roth: Absolutely, especially if people are unsure of their options. If someone in El Paso only knows about the clinic in San Antonio, and can't get an appointment for weeks or months because it's overbooked, that could push their pregnancy further along and lead to a more expensive procedure. So it will increase how much they need, and we're going to have to work with that. We're going to be making a lot more referrals to national abortion funds and other funds in Texas for people who are traveling long distances.
What can other funds do to increase access in the face of these restrictions?
Roth: I think having real conversations in your communities is going to be one of the best ways to educate people. Make sure people know that abortion is legal—that politicians are trying to make it as hard as possible, but it is not illegal. You have options.
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