Kate Cohen is a writer based in Albany, N.Y.
When Alabama passed its law effectively outlawing abortion at every stage of pregnancy, and even in cases of rape or incest, my Facebook and Twitter feeds quickly found a way to fight back: give to the Yellowhammer Fund, an organization that provides financial support to women seeking abortions in the state.
Yes! The Yellowhammer Fund! It even sounds angry.
But does it help?
I’m not questioning whether it helps individual women and girls. The Yellowhammer Fund (named for the state bird, a variety of woodpecker) is a member of the National Network of Abortion Funds, which has been helping women access abortion services for more than 25 years. I have no doubt that the fund is operating in good faith and, since half of abortion patients fall below the federal poverty line, I know that financial assistance is sorely needed. And I know giving it helps me feel better.
I could not stop those 100 Republicans from making it a felony to provide abortion care to a rape victim. I cannot change the makeup of the Supreme Court, which has the ultimate power to decide the legality of this ban. But I can, by God, remember all 16 digits of my credit card number, as well as my security code. Hammer!
All around me, I can feel my pro-choice friends hammering away. It feels good. But is it the best way to further the cause of reproductive justice?
I usually resist the short-term fix and object to spending private money in place of public funds. When billionaire investor Robert F. Smith told Morehouse College graduates on Sunday that he would pay off their student loans, I thought, good for those 396 graduates. But billionaire philanthropists are no substitute for substantive legislation on student debt. And worse, one billionaire doing a good deed could make us all a little more complacent about the social justice work that needs to be done. Shouldn’t we ask all the billionaires to pay more taxes?
In another recent human interest story, a New York man, shocked to learn that an Arizona teacher making $35,000 a year had to buy her own classroom supplies, started a website where teachers can make classroom wish lists and donors can fulfill them. Some people found this heartwarming; I found it disheartening. Public school should be publicly funded. If government isn’t doing its job, we should pour energy and money into political action, not pore over an online wish list.
I don’t blame teachers for trying to improve their situation, and I don’t blame donors for trying to help. But I do wonder whether buying books for a classroom on the other side of the country lets people feel as if they’re solving the problem, even as it lets the problem persist. I even wonder whether having enough books for another school year quiets the parent protest, delays the teacher strike, or dampens the rage that might otherwise lead a person to vote someone out of office or run for office herself.
Wouldn’t it be better in the long run to let citizens suffer the full consequences of their state and national politics?
Normally, I would say yes. But with this abortion ban, I can’t. Maybe it’s because I take personally the crisis in Alabama, which was the sometime summer landscape of my childhood. My father grew up there, in Montgomery, where his father was an obstetrician and gynecologist. Granddaddy was pro-choice long before the term was coined. He performed abortions in his office for people in need, both before it was legal and later, when it was legal but increasingly controversial, and he was the only remaining partner in his practice willing to do it.
But the ban feels personal for another reason, too. I know what it feels like to be pregnant and in a panic, unsure about my choice, and grateful to the physician assistant who quietly reminded me that I had one.
Even for me, with health insurance and financial security and the reproductive freedom afforded by the state of New York, the clock was ticking on a decision that would change my life. How much more must it feel that time is running out in Alabama?
That urgency, that looming threat, is what makes me give. It’s true that the plight of women who need reproductive care in states that restrict such care is not new. As it is now — when abortion is still legal in Alabama — there are only three clinics in the state that provide the service. But this new law would clearly and unambiguously shut the trap on pregnant women and lock it. Yes, we need to fight the law and, yes, we need to fight the politics that gave rise to it. But first, we have to pry open the trap, before it’s too late. Before women are forced to turn to a life-threatening, illegal abortion , or risk the dangers — especially to black women — of bearing a child.
Does short-term charity undermine long-term change? I think sometimes it can. Maybe, in theory, we would fight harder against the right-wing forces bent on taking away our rights if we had literally no choice. But for women facing a matter of life and death, with the clock running, the fight has to come second. Survival comes first.
So hammer away.
And then vote.