On Tuesday night Seattle Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal told her abortion story at the Riveter, a women's co-working space on Capitol Hill, alongside expert marimbist Erin Jorgensen, Northwest Abortion Access Fund board member Beth Vile, and the Riveter senior director of diversity Jodi-Ann Burey.
The evening marked the first time Rep. Jayapal had spoken publicly in town about her abortion since she published the full story in an op-ed for the New York Times last month. If you haven't read the piece, then read it and come right back here. It's good.
Jayapal said the response to the op-ed has "spurred a different kind of conversation." She's heard from mothers inspired to tell their daughters about their own abortions for the first time, and even from conservatives in the medical field who are also frustrated about TRAP laws and other threats to abortion access.
But she hasn't received universal acceptance. "We did have to up our security, unfortunately," Jayapal said. And though she said she felt "generally supported" by her colleagues in the House, she admitted there were still a number of people who didn't want to talk about it, or who would only whisper their support in private. "I think it's still something people feel funny about sharing or pushing out there as much," she said.
All of the women's stories moved the crowd, many of whom seemed to be preparing to enter a Master's program in public health policy. Jorgensen's abortions "were just a part of [her] life," as she wrote in her contribution to the collection of essays in the Shout Your Abortion book.
In a story spiked with jokes, a lost poem, and a hilarious Swiss cheese metaphor, Burey spoke of overcoming the shame of feeling like a statistic, "yet another teenage black girl who gets pregnant." Having no one else to talk to at the time, she saw an ad on a city bus that led her to a clinic where she could get an abortion paid for by Medicaid.
Vile had a later abortion than the other women, and the hurdles she had to jump over were infuriating.
Jayapal thanked her abortion doctor, who was in the room, as well as the other women who shared their stories.
Then came the Q&A, which drew a particularly interesting question from the audience.
Nilofar Ganjaie with the Northwest Abortion Access Fund (NWAAF) mentioned the fact that last month New York City became the first city in the country to fund abortions in their budget. The city added $250,000 to the New York Abortion Access Fund, which "provides payment to clinics on behalf of women who might not be able to pay for abortions, but are not covered by insurance or Medicaid."
"Even when abortion is accessible it is incredibly expensive, and that makes it inaccessible for a lot of people," Ganjaie said. She went on to ask what grassroots activists could do to secure local, state, and federal money for abortions.
Jayapal said the Hyde Amendment bars federal funding for abortions, but noted that Rep. Barbara Lee's Each Woman Act would repeal Hyde, as would Jayapal's own Medicare for All Act.
She then called NYC's decision to fund abortions "awesome" and told the activists to take the idea to City Hall and to Olympia.
"They're going to love me," Jayapal said jokingly, "But you should take that to the city council and talk to them about doing something similar. And take it to the State and talk about doing something similar."
"My sense is we have a city and a State Legislature that has been friendly to some of those things," Jayapal added.
Good point! Why doesn't Seattle or the state of Washington help fund abortions for women who can't afford them? City and state officials were happy to pat themselves on the back for living in a state that has codified Roe into law, for living in a state that covers abortion for people on Medicaid, and for continuing to work to increase access to abortion. But, as Ganjaie mentioned, many people in the region still can't afford to exercise their constitutional right. That leaves abortion funds to help fill the gap.
In an excellent piece from the Portland Mercury back in 2017, Megan Burbank reports that our regional abortion fund runs out of money by Tuesday or Wednesday every week.
The NWAAF is a volunteer organization that runs a hotline for people who can't afford abortions. They cover the PNW region, including Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. If they have the money, the group issues grants to pay clinics for part of the person's abortion costs. They also pay for travel and lodging for people who must drive or fly long distances to get to those clinics.
People can't afford abortions for a number of reasons. Some have private insurance, but their deductibles are so high that they have to pay the full cost of the abortion out-of-pocket, and they don't have it. Some abortions, especially later term ones, can cost thousands of dollars.
The cost of travel can be prohibitive, too. Idaho, for example, only had "five abortion-providing facilities...in 2014, and three of those were clinics," according to the Guttmacher Institute. Those clinics seemed to be concentrated in one area, since "95% of Idaho counties had no clinics that provided abortions."
NWAAF keeps a breakdown of caller locations in the region. Most come from Idaho, whose lawmakers have pledged to restrict access to abortion to a greater degree next year, according to the Idaho Statesman.
But plenty of people in Washington can't afford an abortion either.
Callers by state, 2018
Alaska - 5%
Idaho - 47%
Oregon - 12%
Washington - 27%
+25 other states
Callers by state (so far), 2019
Alaska - 6%
Idaho - 54%
Oregon - 8%
Washington - 24%
+20 other states
According to a 2018 report from NWAAF, the group spent $232,000 on direct funding for abortions and $42,000 for travel support. That year they were able to fund 1,058 of the 2,608 callers they had, which is less than half.
So far this year they've had 927 callers and have spent $191,346 on abortions and $22,098 on travel support.
Bottom line: $250,000 seems like a small investment, but it'd go a long way in ensuring that every person in this region could get access to abortion.