The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Demand for abortion subsidies surges in the D.C. area as funding declines

Antiabortion demonstrators and abortion rights supporters in front of the Supreme Court during the 2018 March for Life. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Earlier versions of this article misstated when the Hyde Amendment, which in its current form bans federal funding for abortions nationwide except in cases of rape or incest or to save the mother’s life, was first approved. It was 1976, not 1973.

Nonprofit groups that fund abortions for low-income patients in D.C., Maryland and Virginia are wrestling with an explosive surge in demand, reflecting disruptions wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and fluctuations in donations sparked by the racial-justice movement, advocates and leaders say.

Funding requests had been climbing since the pandemic spurred widespread layoffs in early 2020, instilling a sense of economic uncertainty that advocates said made more people leery of starting families or having additional children.

Then, at the start of the new year, the country’s largest national abortion fund said it expected a big drop in donations from its philanthropic partners.

Little explanation was provided to advocacy groups or to clinics for why this happened. But the head of the National Abortion Federation, which administers the fund, said in an interview that some donors took financial hits from the pandemic, while others were turning their attention to diversity initiatives after the killing of George Floyd spurred nationwide protests.

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Starting in January, the federation’s Justice Fund reduced the amount of subsidies available to low-income applicants, who then turned to local funds.

“We saw our call volume essentially double overnight. . . . Suddenly, it just became so much more untenable,” said Deepika Srivastava, president of the DC Abortion Fund, which gave out $123,000 to 398 clients in April — more than triple the amount from April 2020. “We’re literally not sure how much longer we can continue this.”

The volunteer-run, donation-driven fund is part of a nationwide patchwork of organizations that help low-income patients pay for abortion procedures they could not otherwise afford. Most of their callers, Srivastava said, are uninsured individuals seeking care in the District and surrounding suburbs, or teenage residents who do not have their families’ support.

“Before, the first call would be to [the National Abortion Federation] because they have the most money, the most resources,” said Isabel Blalock, a field director at NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, which advocates for abortion rights. “That’s changed now. . . . Local funds are being asked to pick up that weight. And that’s a big ask for these small, community-driven organizations.”

National Abortion Federation President Katherine Hancock Ragsdale said she could not disclose how much money was cut from the Justice Fund. But she noted that even with additional fundraising efforts underway, the fund’s 2021 budget is likely to be at least 25 percent smaller than last year’s.

As Republicans in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and elsewhere push forward with antiabortion legislation, more people are coming to the D.C. metro area from out of state to terminate their pregnancies, Blalock said. Some of these patients not only need help paying for an abortion, but also to cover travel expenses, time off work and child care.

While national funding blunted the impact for a while, the increased costs are now being sought from local funds. In the past fiscal year, the number of procedures the DC Abortion Fund subsidized that cost more than $1,000 nearly tripled — 88, up from 32 a year earlier.

In Maryland, the Baltimore Abortion Fund has seen a jump in the number of callers who are at least 24 weeks pregnant — from four cases in the first quarter of 2020 to 15 cases in the first quarter of 2021 — and is using reserve funds to accommodate them, BAF Board President Jaylynn Johnstone said. Still, the group expects that it will have to decline $500,000 in subsidy requests by the end of the year — nearly six times its annual budget.

In Virginia, the Blue Ridge Abortion Fund, which typically accepts funding requests three days a week, has been burning through its weekly budget of $12,000 on Mondays, said Executive Director Tannis Fuller. Since January, most people calling in on Wednesdays and Fridays have gotten a recorded message saying that the fund has run out of money for the week and that they should call back in a few days.

“The heart of abortion funding has always been, ‘We’ll do everything we can to get you to that abortion,’ ” Fuller said. “In the last few months, that commitment has felt less and less possible.”

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The National Abortion Federation houses several abortion funds, the biggest of which is the Justice Fund, which helped more than 100,000 patients afford their procedures in 2020. Near the end of the year, the group of anonymous foundations that finances the fund said it would be cutting their contributions, said Ragsdale, the federation president. Some foundations planned to divert donations to organizations that address racial inequities or groups run by Black advocates, she said.

“While we hate losing funding,” Ragsdale said, “we certainly cannot complain about the foundations investing in [diversity and inclusion] initiatives.”

In D.C., Maryland and Virginia, however, advocates say the diversion of abortion funding has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Since the late 1970s, the District has been barred by Congress from using taxpayer dollars to fund abortions. As a result, private abortion funds play an outsize role in supporting the city’s low-income, uninsured residents, the majority of whom are Black and Latino.

“A lot of demand we’re seeing right now is being driven by the fact that a massive door has closed for a lot of people,” said Srivastava, of the DC Abortion Fund.

Donations have flowed in from a mix of foundations and individuals, Njoku said, probably tied to both the antiabortion legislation advancing in several states and the racial-justice movement.

“All of these things compounded and made people want to donate to a fund led by two Black people in the South,” Njoku said. “We’re totally grateful on the ground,” she added, “but I have to emphasize that it’s barely scratching the surface.”

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Ragsdale attributed funding challenges in the D.C. metro area less to changes at the Justice Fund and more to the economic impact of the pandemic, which disproportionately affected low-wage workers and Black and Latina mothers. It is not just local funds that have seen greater demand for subsidies, she noted — calls to the federation’s hotline have increased by 10 percent since last April.

Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, said the pandemic exposed how underresourced the abortion funding network is.

For decades, a provision in the federal budget called the Hyde Amendment has banned federal funding for abortions nationwide, with rare exceptions. The bane includes payments through Medicaid, the government-funded health insurance for the poor.

Seventeen states, including Maryland, have passed laws that allow Medicaid funding to pay for abortions, despite the amendment. But in most of the country, patients rely on private insurance or pay out of pocket. Those who do not have the money can seek help from sources such as the Justice Fund. When these foundations make changes, it can disrupt the entire abortion funding network.

“It shouldn’t be dependent on one or two foundations — that’s just too precarious,” Hernandez said.

According to a recent study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, private foundations donated $912 million to support abortion-related causes from 2015 to 2019 but less than 3 percent of that money was designated to pay for abortions. The vast majority went toward abortion rights advocacy at the state and federal levels, which Hernandez said does little to assist poor or teenage patients who need immediate support.

“The idea is that if we change the policy, we help more people, more quickly. But the fact is that we’re in a space where a lot has been invested in policy and we still have a conservative Supreme Court,” she said. “There are people right now, today, who aren’t able to access care.”

President Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget proposes scrapping the Hyde Amendment and the D.C.-specific provision that bars local taxpayer dollars from going toward abortions in the city — changes that will dramatically expand abortion access if implemented.

But for now, Hernandez said, there are thousands of people in need across the country scrambling to find enough money to terminate their pregnancies, an option that becomes more expensive with each week that passes.

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