Abortion Funds Face Slowdown in Giving a Year After Supreme Court Ruling
On May 2, 2022, the National Network of Abortion Funds tapped Oriaku Njoku as its new executive director. That evening, a draft opinion of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked, signaling the imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that established the constitutional right to abortion.
As a co-founder of Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, the South’s largest abortion fund, Njoku was clear-eyed about would come next.
Abortion funds raise money to help people cover the out-of-pocket cost of the procedure — anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars — as well as money for travel expenses, child care, and other logistical support. Many manage helplines, operate on shoestring budgets, and are often led by volunteers or small staffs.
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On the evening of May 2, 2022, a draft opinion of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked, signaling the imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that established the constitutional right to abortion. That same day, the National Network of Abortion Funds had tapped Oriaku Njoku as its new executive director.
As a co-founder of Access Reproductive Care-Southeast, the South’s largest abortion fund, Njoku was clear-eyed about what would come next.
Abortion funds raise money to help people cover the out-of-pocket cost of the procedure — anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars — as well as money for travel expenses, child care, and other logistical support. Many manage helplines, operate on shoestring budgets, and are led by volunteers or small staffs.
In the year since the court’s decision, these grassroots funds have become an increasingly important part of the safety net for abortion-seekers. About half of women who have abortions live below the poverty line, and three quarters of patients are low-income. Most states do not allow the use of state Medicaid funds to cover the procedure.
The court’s ruling led to a flurry of donations. In the five months that followed, the National Network of Abortion Funds raised more than $8 million, more than four times the support individuals gave the organization in all of 2020. Much of that funding was distributed to the network’s nearly 100 member funds, which also raise money independently.
Calls to abortion hotlines have increased sharply over the past year, but people and institutional philanthropies haven’t continued giving at a level to meet the increased need, says Njoku. “It’s this mismatch where the need is increasing, but the amount of support that’s coming in has not balanced out.”
Njoku spoke with the Chronicle about the state of giving for abortion funds and how the national network is evolving to meet the needs of the post-Roe era, including the hiring of its first general counsel.
After the Dobbs decision, there was an outpouring of donations to abortion funds across the country. What’s the financial situation facing abortion funds today?
The amount of growth was more than so many of our funds ever had in their histories. But that money goes very quickly. As the energy around Dobbs and the donating started to dwindle, the need and the amount of work that goes into supporting people who are going to get abortions actually went up. My worry is this sense of complacency and people thinking, Oh, abortion funds got it.
The reality is we’re talking about a lot of organizations that maybe have just one staff member and are majority or all volunteer. Some have an average budget of less than $100,000.
We’re hearing this need for funding not just in the states that are restricted or have low or no access but even in the states that are taking on the brunt of this doubling or tripling of the amount of patients they were previously supporting. Now we have people from nearly half of this country traveling to other states to get care.
The Baltimore Abortion Fund reported distributing about $780,000 in abortion funding and practical support funds in 2022, which was almost three times the 2021 total. Calls to this organization’s hotline also increased by 33 percent. Even in Chicago, an abortion fund recently reported that their average funding amount for travel expenses, child care, other related logistical costs increased from $120 pre-Dobbs to $375 after. Some funds are running out of money because the needs have increased so much.
Philanthropic support of reproductive rights has largely focused on policy change and advocacy efforts, while abortion funds get a small slice of the dollars. Have donor priorities shifted over the past year?
I think funders are still trying to figure out what support looks like. Funders who may be concerned with economic justice are starting to see if they can start to support more abortion funds. Abortion-access and reproductive-justice work really does intersect with all of the other issues people care about because those are the things people are considering when making the choice whether or not to parent.
Especially with some of the new funders, we’re hearing things like, What is your playbook? What is the actual strategic plan of the movement? What is the 30-year plan? That’s a little hard right now. This is uncharted territory for so many of our organizations. We’re having conversations and really trying to figure out what a strategy looks like. But abortion still needs to be accessible, and we need to keep our clinics open to make sure that abortions are available.
In order for us to get the wins that we want, it really does require a deep, long-term investment from philanthropy and individual donors.
As states have passed increasingly restrictive abortion laws, some abortion funds worry they will be prosecuted for providing information about resources or money for out-of-state travel. How is your network helping its members navigate the legal terrain?
Lawyers from groups like the Lawyering Project are starting to work with abortion funds to provide pro bono support. There’s also the If/When/How Repro Legal Helpline that is supporting people who are self-managing their abortion. This is a movement-wide question. What are the things that you actually can do given the constraints? Some of these threats of risk that we talk about, are they perceived threats? Are they experienced threats? These are all things that we need to consider when providing support to our membership.
We just hired our first general counsel. We have someone on staff now who can look at these things and help guide us in ways that is not coming from a place of scarcity or fear but really thinking about how abortion funds can continue doing this work. It’s really exciting to see how the legal community is coming together to ensure that people have access.
Does the uncertain legal environment have a chilling effect on donors? Are you seeing more donors giving anonymously?
It does shift what the funding has looked like on the ground. Some foundations and other donors are choosing to fund NNAF directly when there are concerns, so we’re stepping into this role of a funding intermediary now. We often hear, “There’s no way we can give to 100 autonomous organizations.” But what they can do is figure out how to give to NNAF and then we pass it through to the abortion fund.
Securing government funding has long been a priority for abortion funds. How is your network organizing to reduce barriers to abortion access?
There’s actually some really beautiful stories of municipalities that are making decisions to fund abortion funds. Atlanta City Council has recently allocated funds to ARC-Southeast for logistical support for people getting abortions. There are also things happening in states like Pennsylvania and New York and Massachusetts to move money to abortion funds. Austin did that even before Dobbs. So we have models of how communities and abortion funds have been working together to ensure that people who are coming to those cities are able to get care.
When it comes to the Hyde Amendment, [which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion], I like to remind people that it is not the law; it is a choice that administrations make every single year to add it as a rider to the budget. We’re being used as political pawns to pass the budgets. It really is coming from this place of people wanting to control the decision-making process that we have for ourselves and for our bodies.
This is not just a conversation about abortion. We’re actually witnessing this erosion of our democracy. There is some sort of political education that is required to understand what is at the root of this and why we need public support, why we need the state or the government to fill the gap that abortion funds and other nonprofits are filling.
How do you feel about the future and the work that needs to be done?
While people are experiencing more and more barriers to abortion access, I’m really encouraged by the fact that our abortion funds are coming together to care for people in our communities in the face of this crisis. I don’t believe that this situation is permanent. I have deep optimism for what can happen grounded in the realities of now and knowing that it’s going to take a while.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Reporting for this article was underwritten by a Lilly Endowment grant to enhance public understanding of philanthropy. The Chronicle is solely responsible for the content. See more about the Chronicle, the grant, how our foundation-supported journalism works, and our gift-acceptance policy.