Texas abortion funds struggle to meet demand for out-of-state abortion assistance

A sign advertising an organization that offers services to abortion patients is on the wall at Whole Womans Health of Austin on Sept. 1, 2021. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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When the new abortion restriction law went into effect this year, donations started flooding into nonprofit organizations that financially assist Texans seeking abortions.

Some Texas nonprofit groups dedicated to paying for the medical costs of abortion say they have more money than patients to give it to — a likely symptom of fewer people being able to access the procedure because of the new law.

But other groups that raise money for the ancillary costs associated with getting an abortion — like traveling, taking time off from work and child care — say the demand is rapidly outpacing their ability to serve these patients who are being forced to travel farther out of state in search of care.

“When you have 100 people calling, trying to say no to half of those clients is very emotionally exhausting,” said Anna Rupani, executive director of Fund Texas Choice, which helps pay for lodging, child care, gas money and other logistics related to receiving an out-of-state abortion.

“Every week is a reassessment of our policies, a changing of our policies, because so much keeps changing with [the abortion law] and the response from the court is creating an increased need,” Rupani added.

The law, crafted by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, passed through the Texas Legislature as Senate Bill 8 in May and bans all abortions after around six weeks into pregnancy, whenever embryonic cardiac activity is detected. But government officials don’t enforce the law — instead it relies on private citizens to sue those who they believe have violated it and allows them to collect at least $10,000 if their suits are successful.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the law’s constitutionality on Nov. 1, in which judges expressed concern about the law’s enforcement mechanism.

Fund Texas Choice was founded in 2013 in response to a Texas law passed that slashed the number of abortion clinics in the state by half because it required them to meet hospitallike standards, among other requirements. That law was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court.

Rupani said the fund has gone from fielding between 10 and 15 calls per week to getting 80 to 100 calls per week. Depending on the circumstance of the individual, the fund gives out anywhere between $800 to more than $2,000 per person.

Rupani said the fund has gone from doling out $15,000 per month before the law’s implementation to more than $40,000 per month. She said she’s not sure how much longer the fund will be able to keep up with demand as the number of donations decrease.

In 2019 and 2018, Fund Texas Choice received more than $550,000 and $238,000 in contributions and grants respectively, according to tax records. She declined to give specific budget numbers for this year but she said they expect the total amount of donations to be much higher for 2021.

“(Donations) have definitely decreased and when we're spending three or four times more money every month, we're going to see (our funds), at some point in time, dissipate,” Rupani said.

Meanwhile, Texas nonprofit groups that pay for the medical cost of abortions through partnering with out-of-state clinics or giving clients vouchers have seen a significant slide in demand.

Abortion clinics are the main pipeline to funds, and fewer patients means fewer referrals, said Cristina Parker, spokesperson for The Lilith Fund, a Texas-based nonprofit that pays for the medical costs of abortions.

“Early on, we had a huge drop in calls,” Parker said. “That was so disturbing because we knew people out there needed abortion funds but couldn’t call us because they couldn’t get information.”

At The Lilith Fund, Parker said because there’s less competition for the funds, they’re now able to fulfill more of the requests they receive. The fund used to be able to only cover about a quarter of the people who called, but now it is able to cover more than 90% of all callers. The average voucher amount they give out has also increased, from $350 in 2020 to between $550 and $850 over the past few months, Parker said.

The number of abortions performed in Texas plummeted by half in September, a recent study from the University of Texas at Austin found.

“We spent the entire summer preparing for this — literally every conversation we had was about what we needed to do,” Parker said. “There was no element of surprise. We knew what we were going to do. We just knew it was going to be hard.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, Parker said, is a majority of the calls the fund receives come from low-income communities of color, who have taken the brunt of the law’s impact.

Seventy percent of people who call the Texas Equal Access Fund, another fund that pays for medical costs, are people of color, said Kamyon Conner, executive director.

“We’ve known for a long time, before SB 8 was even considered, that the right to abortion doesn’t ensure access to abortion, especially for those of limited means,” said Donna Howard, chair of the Texas Legislature’s Women’s Health Caucus. “That disproportionately means people of color and people in rural settings. SB 8 only exacerbated that situation.”

The Texas Equal Access Fund still can’t meet demand — it never could — but it’s able to give out more money to the fewer people calling, Conner said. In any given month before the law’s implementation, it was able to pay for approximately 60 people’s abortions. But this has increased in past months — for instance, in November, it has paid for 90 people’s abortions so far.

To be able to fully meet demand, the fund would need a budget of $1.5 million every year, Conner said. But before the law settled into place, their budget was less than $420,000 per year, Conner said.

“After two weeks into September, or even once October hit, it was not on people's radars as much.” Conner said of dwindling donations. “We fully anticipate that if SB 8 is overturned, or even at the beginning of next year, we won't be able to support people in the way that we have been since Sept. 1.”

Both abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion organizations expected the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a ruling on the law earlier this week, but no action was taken. It has not announced a date for when it will release an opinion.

“The fact that this has been able to stand for 75, 76, 77 days — I've lost count — is ridiculous,” Conner said. “It shows folks that at this moment, we don't have support from the highest court in our country, and the highest offices and folks in our federal government don't necessarily have the power to change this.”

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