Network that helps women fund abortions increases its visibility

Advocates meet this week at UM and in Washington

April 23, 2004|By K Kaufmann | K Kaufmann,SUN STAFF

Ask Kathy Rogers why she started a fund to help women pay for abortions, and she will tell you stories of low-wage women with no health insurance who can't afford $25 a month for birth control.

So Rogers, director of Seneca Women's Health Care in Baltimore, started asking friends for money to help low-income women pay for abortions.

In 2001, the Seneca Women's Health Fund was created.

Rogers will represent the fund at the March for Women's Lives in Washington on Sunday as part of a contingent from the National Network of Abortion Funds, an organization of 98 groups that, like Seneca, help low-income women pay for abortions. The network is also holding its annual conference today and tomorrow at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Most of the funds were formed in the 1980s and 1990s, in reaction to state and federal laws banning the use of public funds for the procedure. The movement has grown exponentially in the past decade - when NNAF formed in 1993, it had 23 members - fueled by a commitment to bridging the gap between the legality of abortion and its affordability.

Their focus on economic access makes the funds controversial to abortion opponents and even some abortion-rights supporters.

Jason Jones, who heads Rock for Life based in Stafford, Va., sees the funds as eugenic, "eliminating undesirables through abortion."

"It's disgusting. I think it's creepy," he said. "Low-income women have lots of problems - housing, day care - [but] I don't think any woman wants an abortion. Many women find themselves in unwanted pregnancies ... but there are many ways out that don't leave you maimed."

The funds have not been specifically targeted by abortion opponents due mostly to their low public visibility. The mainstream abortion-rights movement has not made economic access a priority, seeing it as potentially alienating to the middle-of-the-road voters it seeks to keep as supporters.

According to Shawn Towey, a spokeswoman for the NNAF, it took intensive negotiations with march organizers to get a speaker from the group for Sunday's program.

Keeping abortion legal is important, she said, "but so is access for low-income women. It's so back burner ... but the need is so acute."

Last year, abortion funds across the country helped 20,000 women with grants and loans totaling $2 million. And for every woman helped, Towey says, three more would have had abortions if they had the money.

The figures on abortion economics expose the extent of the problem. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 11 million - or 18 percent - of women age 15 to 44 have no health insurance. Thirty-five states, including Maryland, restrict public funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

Funding restrictions in Maryland are somewhat mitigated by an additional exception for women's mental health, but that still leaves many women in need, said Amber Eisenmann of the June Coleman Reproductive Fund at Planned Parenthood in Baltimore. The fund averages eight to 10 calls per week, she says, but can only give money to three to five women every month.

Eisenmann stresses that the Coleman fund - named for a popular employee who died in a traffic accident - is a "resource of last resort." Women typically receive small "loans" of $50 to $100 and they are expected to raise as much of the $350 abortion fee as they can.

The Baltimore funds are the only two in Maryland. In most cases, they limit grants to their patients. Planned Parenthood gives out about $300 to $500 per month; Seneca even less.

Keeping the money flowing is a challenge. Many NNAF members are community-based groups with small donor bases and limited time and fund-raising expertise.

At Seneca, Rogers says, the economic downturn has cut donations in half.

She and Eisenmann see their work as essential to abortion rights. "We have wonderful doctors," Eisenmann said, "but it doesn't mean a thing if women can't afford to pay for the procedure."

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