Women’s Medical Fund Helps Where Government Fails


"My name is Danielle," she says, and immediately begins to
sob. "I have three little kids and cannot have another. I cannot. I’m telling
you, I cannot be pregnant or have
this baby."

Danielle then takes a deep, audible breath, lets out another sob,
and slowly resumes talking to the answering machine at the Women’s Medical Fund
in Philadelphia.

I’m on cash assistance and just paid my electric bill so I
don’t have any money for an abortion. I need to come up with $250. Please,
please help me.

Danielle is followed by Taneisha, Josenia, Courtney, Daisy,
Shannon, Monica, Amara – 25 calls total, not including the dozen who’ve hung up
without saying a word.  Each of
them says the same thing: She wants to have an abortion but cannot afford one.

It’s morning at the Women’s Medical Fund and counselors
taking calls off the voicemail describe this parade of messages as typical.
They seem nonplussed as they prepare to call each woman back, readying
themselves to ask hard questions about personal finances, health, and family
support systems to ascertain whether the Fund can assist them. It’s a daunting
task, made harder by the current economic climate, which leaves the Fund with
less money to dispense.

It’s not even 10:00 a.m. and I’m already overwhelmed. But
the counselors – highly trained college interns and volunteers supervised by a
paid staff of three – are cheerful, eager to do what they can for low-income
women in their five-county catchment area of southeastern Pennsylvania.

The 24-year-old Fund was established in 1985, shortly after
the state cut off Medicaid coverage for abortion. As one of the 102 groups in
the National Network of Abortion Funds, its mission is to offer grants and
loans to women who want to end unwanted pregnancies but lack the means to do so.  Since its founding more than 12,000 Philadelphia-area
teenagers and adult women have been aided and more than $1.6 million – all of it
raised through individual donations and foundation grants – has been disbursed.

Still, like other members of NNAF, WMF staff look forward to
the day when the Hyde Amendment – the hated 32-year-old bill that bans federal Medicaid
coverage for abortion unless the woman was raped, violated by incest, or will
die or face serious health complications if she carries the pregnancy to
term – is overturned. As advocates, they favor expanding Medicaid to include all
reproductive health services for low-income women.

Until then, however, WMF counselors have no choice but to
ask each woman they speak with a litany of personal questions: Was she forced
to have intercourse? Did a family member impregnate her? Was she ever warned
that carrying a pregnancy to term might put her at medical risk? A "yes" on any
of these queries sends both counselor and patient deep into government
bureaucracy. They understand that if Medicaid will pay for the abortion, the
WMF can stretch their increasingly limited dollars a bit further.

"We never have enough money," admits Susan Schewel, WMF’s
Executive Director, "but it has gotten worse. The recession has caused some of
our donors to make cutbacks and our fall fundraising did not go as well as we
had hoped." In fiscal 2008, which ran from July 1, 2007 until June 30, 2008,
the Fund received $100,000 from local foundations; in fiscal 2009 they took in
$60,000. Still, in fiscal 2009, more than $165,000 was distributed. What’s more,
nearly 500 women were assisted in the first four calendar months of this year,
up almost 50 percent since 2008; the average grant: $139.

"The typical WMF caller is in her twenties, has a toddler or
preschooler already, and is on either cash assistance or has a part-time, minimum
wage job. Almost one-third are uninsured and 93 percent live below the federal
poverty guideline for their family size," says Schewel. She continues:

A fair number of the
women work part-time and go to school part-time.  Their lives are really complicated but the one thing they
have in common is that they’re all doing the best they can. In fact that’s my
mantra: Everyone is doing the best she can.

That said, Schewel and WMF’s counselors can’t help but be frustrated
by the fact that privately-run Funds have become an essential component of
reproductive health care, filling gaps left by inadequate government funding.

"Our so-called safety net doesn’t really act as a safety net," Schewel says. "Women can’t live independently even if they access all the benefits
they’re entitled to: Medicaid, cash assistance, food stamps, child support.
Even if she gets everything that’s out there she can’t live alone unless she
has subsidized housing. The low-cost housing shortage in Philly is terrible so
lots of women live with family or friends who are willing to put them up for a
month, or a week, or a year but they’re basically homeless. This crisis is exacerbated
when the women becomes pregnant."

Twenty-seven-year-old Melissa, the mother of a three-year-old,
faced an unplanned pregnancy crisis in mid-May.  "It was a little more than a month before I was set to begin
a nine-month training program to become a phlebotomist," she says. 

When I got the pregnancy results I was
scared and unsure about what to do but knowing that I couldn’t afford an
abortion made it worse. Once I found the Fund they helped me get everything
together and slowly but surely things fell into place. I had already come up
with as much money as I could on my own, and when I called the Fund, the counselor
assured me that they’d help with the difference.

Catherine is in similar straits. Her voice is composed as
she describes her predicament: She is 13.4 weeks pregnant and has an abortion scheduled
for the following week. Then, slowly, in response to the counselor’s questions,
she confides that she is in poor health, listing problems including endometriosis,
chronic Hepatitis C, asthma, and limited mobility.   

Almost as an
afterthought she mentions the horror she lives with: "My ex-husband ran me over
with his car a while back. Five vertebrae were broken and my collarbone and
left leg were shattered."

She can no longer work, she says, and has applied for
Social Security Disability but has not heard back about her eligibility.  In the interim, she and her 11-year-old
son live with her sister and she receives a biweekly welfare grant of $158.
"I’m extremely poor," she mumbles.

As the interview progresses, the counselor learns that
Catherine’s doctor has advised her against completing the pregnancy, warning that
her already fragile health could be worsened by childbirth. Might this allow
her to get Medicaid coverage? The counselor jots down Catherine’s doctor’s name
and number and assures her that she will contact the medical practice to
discuss her probable eligibility for Medicaid-funded surgery. The counselor adds
that she will also fax the doctor an MA-3 form -a Physician’s Certification for
Abortion-to get the ball rolling.

This news makes Catherine euphoric; she sounds as elated as
a lottery winner.

Not so Jaime, who is 6.4 weeks pregnant and says that she
needs $450. That fee, for a general anesthetic, is more than the WMF can
provide and the counselor tells Jaime to call the clinic and ask the price for
local anesthesia. "Not being put to sleep means that the abortion costs less,"
she counsels. "Please call me back with the new price and we’ll take it from
there."   Will she ever hear
back from Jaime? the counselor wonders.

Others requests involve more heartbreak: Incarcerated
husbands and boyfriends; women suicidal because of unwanted pregnancies; honors
students whose contraceptives failed; women unexpectedly laid off from jobs
they thought were secure.

"These women are the experts about their lives," says WMF
director Susan Schewel. "Not me. Not us."

Erica, who received $130 from the Fund in April, says that
she was surprised that WMF staff respected her decision to have an abortion.

I’m 20 and have two kids already, a one-year-old and a four-year-old. This
pregnancy came as a surprise. I thought about having it but was so sick
throughout the day that I was unable to function. It was too much on me. The
total cost of the abortion was $350, but the clinic gave me a discount to $230.
I had $50 already and my job advanced me $50. When the Fund made up the
difference, I got the abortion done.

"Receiving help from the Fund was the best thing that
happened to me in a long time," Erica adds. "I was overwhelmed and happy to get
money when I called."

Steph Herold was a volunteer counselor at the WMF for
several years while she was in college. Now an abortion counselor, she describes
the work of the Fund as extremely important, if limited.  "You have to accept that you are there
to help with one aspect of a woman’s abortion experience, the cost of the
procedure," she said in an email. "Ultimately,
though, you play a critical role in her pursuit of reproductive rights."    

The WMF believes that reproductive choice is essential, but
recognizes that without access, choice is meaningless. By providing direct
financial assistance to low-income women, they equalize the playing field, giving
poor females the same options that have always been available to their better-heeled
peers.

More
information about the Women’s Medical Fund is available at www.womensmedicalfund.org or by
calling 215.564.4070.

The National Network of
Abortion Funds can be reached by calling 617.524.6040.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • invalid-0

    To all of my pro-choice sisters and brothers- please give if you can, and what you can. After giving more money to Planned Parenthood and Naral, I cannot help but want to give here as well. After reading some of these women’s stories, I feel a lot of things- heartbroken for them, sad for the world that we live in where women are not only abused, downtrodden, put in situations where pregnancy can mean feeling too suicidal to take care of the existing children that they have (pregnancy is still a reason a woman will committ suicide, and what happens to her existing children? I know that Foster homes sadly, house such children. Where are the anti-choicers THEN? nowhere to be found, from what I have seen personally.) Knowing and seeing for myself such teens who came from the described homes and who were not wanted, or whose parents could not handle having them, How can I not give more? The scars of poverty and hopelessness are enormous, overwhelming, and alarming. Education and hope are very necessary for women’s lives. To make them stronger, makes the very fabric of the society that they live in stronger.

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  • invalid-0

    It would be better to have one’s child, one’s own flesh and blood, and to learn not to have sex where the conditions are not present to make a new life. Celibacy is easier than abortion.

    • frolicnaked

      It would also be better to wake up and recognize the privilege inherent in this statement. Not all women are in places where they get to freely consent to sex.

  • invalid-0

    Those of us who have been abortion providers for a long time have never seen such need for help with funding abortions as there is now. Women losing their jobs or losing their insurance comprise a huge number of new cases on top of the typical need in states (most) where Medicaid does not cover abortion. For about the past year and a half the Justice Fund was a source of funds, BUT THE NEED HAS BEEN SO GREAT THAT THE FUND IS NEARLY DEPLETED! Attempts to limit the amount given to women in need has not slowed the desperate pleas from women who can barely feed the children they now have. The software tracking the number of calls coming in counts up to 10,000 calls attempting to reach the fund at any one time. You can surely see that most of those women will not even get through, even if there would be any money left.

    A previous writer indicated that she donates to PP. This writer may not realize that 85% of abortions are performed by independent providers who are not a part of the PP chain. And Naral, while it performs important political work, does not put money into the hands of women in need. If you want to contribute and be sure that your donation will go to the women who need it most, please contribute to National Network of Abortion Funds at nnaf.org. This organization exists to put money in the hands of women for abortion. Simply that! They also help interested parties to set up their own funds.

    With the unemployment rolls still rising, with the existing funds running out of money, more women than ever need help. Of course women have always had abortions and they will continue. But desperate women may take desperate measures. Just because abortion is safe and legal does not mean that women can afford to have a safe, legal abortion. Call the White House and register your opinion. The number is 202-456-1414. Tell President Obama that abortion is a part of health care and as such MUST be included in any national health care program. Now is the time to get that message to the president and his team. Post this information on all blogs for maximum coverage. Save women’s lives and demand abortion coverage in our universal health coverage!!

  • invalid-0

    When you’ve figured out how to teach people not to have sex, this might be a useful argument. So far as I’m aware, the only really effective teaching method demonstrated in thousands of years of civilization is to kill everybody who’s sexually active without society’s permission, and even that doesn’t work 100% of the time.

  • invalid-0

    Come on my fellow pro-choicers, ring those Whitehouse phones off of the hook! : )

  • invalid-0

    Why is it we pay for low income women’s prenatal care and not abortion? If we trust women enough to rasie a child why don’t we trust them enough to know when to be a parent. I just don’t get it

  • http://www.bulwarkpestcontrol.com/lasvegaspestcontrol.php invalid-0

    If you can not afford to care for your children, why are you having them?! I don’t think it should be the responsibility of all of us taxpayers to pay for food and health care for all of these women’s children that had no business having them in the first place.

  • http://ezinearticles.com/?How-to-Make-a-Computer-Run-Faster&id=2536735 invalid-0

    well sometimes people get kids without having planned them – and YES they also get them when they’re poor. Bummer :)
    “No business having kids” <– sorry this statement doesn’t make a lot of sense

    G.

  • smac

    Almost as an afterthought she mentions the horror she lives with: “My ex-husband ran me over with his car a while back. Five vertebrae were broken and my collarbone and left leg were shattered.”

    …………..Yet she still had enough gusto to have sex, get pregnant and now wants to trot into an abortion clinic to end the life of her baby.

    Calling all women!
    If you can’t afford another child and are not married don’t have sex. If you are married and can not afford to have another child double up your efforts to not get pregnant. It’s just not that hard.

  • smac

    Elenor,
    Please.
    Why does your title insist that governement has “failed” women by not providing funds for abortion? Why should the American taxpayers be forced to pay for abortions?

    These women in your article are the one’s who failed by not taking the proper precautions against an unplanned pregnancy.

  • therealistmom

    … to pay for old men’s viagra so they can get it up? They should just live with not having sex. Why should I be forced to pay for military operations overseas killing tens of thousands of born people?

     Maybe if we paid for universal care so women could get adequate birth control and sterilization you wouldn’t have so many abortions to whine about.

  • crowepps

    It kind of boggles me that one of the instances described is a woman whose ex-husband had no problem running over her with his car and attempting to KILL her and yet someone actually thinks she has total control over whether she participates in sex. Sure wish they’d go down to the nearest women’s shelter and volunteer – they’d be exposed to a reality beyond their worst nightmares.

     

    For those who actually are interested in the facts of the problem, numerous stats are listed here:

     

    http://www.padv.org/statistics.aspx

     

    Ran across this and realized that a milder form of the same is what bothers me sometimes about Paul’s posts:

    Men who abuse their partners come from all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, areas of the world, educational levels and occupations. They often appear charming and attentive to outsiders, and even to their partners, at first. Many batterers are very good at disguising their abusive behavior to appear socially acceptable. Once they develop a relationship with a partner however, they become more and more abusive. Domestic violence perpetrators: •seek control of the thoughts, beliefs and conduct of their partner •punish their partner for resisting control Men who batter: •minimize the seriousness of their violence •act impulsively •distrust others •need to control people and situations •express feelings as anger A batterer covers up his violence by denying, minimizing, and blaming the victim. He often convinces his partner that the abuse is less serious than it is, or that it is her fault.

    Now I am NOT saying that Paul is abusive or a batterer, but there is certainly that male tendency to "seek control of the thoughts, beliefs and conduct of" women (in general) and mild "punishment" through insults and patronizing remarks when that control is resisted.  For sure there is minimizing and distrust and some ‘blaming the victim’, particularly ‘it’s HER fault she’s pregnant’.  Just a thought!

  • princess-rot

    Why is it, that on every post about women’s rights, some cruel and cold-hearted, privileged, ignorant, son of a b*tch always comes along and says something like this? Hello? Hello? Are we reading the same post here? Her ex-husband tried to KILL her, do you honestly think he would respect her enough to listen if says "no" to sex? Do you honestly think, after being targeted by an abusive man (and the murder attempt was probably the culmination of a long period of abuse) and ill health, she will have enough self-confidence and faith to assert herself and demand good treatment? It’s pointless to try and act as gatekeeper when the person you’re denying access to chooses not to listen. That’s why telling women to cross their legs never works – it excuses and enables rapists by putting all the responsibility on the person who has the least power. Do you know what you are engaging in here is rape apology?

    It’s just not that hard.

    Oh yeah, that’s fine if you’ve got a steady income and/or health insurance to afford BC in the first place, and a stable relationship with someone who respects your right to bodily autonomy, AND you live near somewhere which dispenses birth control. And why do you put all the onus on women again? Do you think the men are too stupid to be mindful of where their sperm goes? Or do you think sex, birth control and everything in between is a woman’s responsibility and she should take 100% of the blame if something goes wrong?