The Abortion-Rights Activist Who Believes in ‘Ferocious Love’

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Photo: Courtesy of NNAF

In 1976, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds to cover abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to a woman’s life. Some states, including New York, use their own funds for work-arounds, but in 33 states Medicaid won’t cover the overwhelming majority of abortion procedures. That means the very women who by definition have the fewest resources must come up with cash to cover their procedures on their own — and within a short window of time.

Seventy-five percent of American women who have abortions are poor or low-income. In the absence of a publicly funded safety net, volunteers across the country started raising money to pay for women’s procedures. In 1993, National Network of Abortion Funds was founded to help coordinate and build political power with those local grassroots funds.

Since 2010, state legislatures have passed at least 288 abortion restrictions, shuttering clinics, sending women on long drives — and thereby raising the costs associated with having an abortion. In no uncertain terms, Trump and Pence have said they aim to limit access to many kinds of health care, including contraception and abortion.

The Cut talked with National Network of Abortion Funds’ director Yamani Hernandez about why she works to fund abortion, and how she’s preparing for what’s to come.

How and why did you get involved in work-around abortion access?
I had an abortion myself when I was 19, but it wasn’t something that politicized me.

I actually have a masters degree in architecture, so I went through that hell. [Laughs.] Ten years ago, I was doing a design project with young people where one of the girls in the program confided that she was willing to pay the other youth in the program to beat her up so that she wouldn’t have to have an abortion. This was 2006. In Chicago. When I had an abortion myself I hadn’t had any access issues, honestly. I literally just made an appointment and went with my boyfriend at the time, who became my husband, now ex-husband. We just paid for it together.

[Talking with the young woman] was the first time I realized that there’s a lot of shame around abortion. When talking to her about it, she was like, “It’s just easier to explain getting beat up than it is to explain going to get an abortion.” Which blew my mind. She was like, “It will be cheaper. Problem solved.” As a part of trying to help her, instead of her resorting to violence, I found out about the Chicago Abortion Fund. That was my first exposure to an abortion fund.

I always have trouble telling that story because it’s not actually my abortion story. I worry about telling somebody else’s story, but it also is a story from my vantage point too, in terms of my awakening, realizing the desperate measures that people would go to, even in 2006, instead of just going to a provider, because of not being able to afford it, being ashamed.

In this case, it was a threat of parents being like, “If you get pregnant, you have to get out.” Facing homelessness. It really opened my eyes to a lot of the issues, and so I made a career change. I started working on reducing shame and stigma around sexuality more generally. I increasingly got more interested in abortion.

Can you describe what abortion funds provide?
We have 70 abortion funds in 38 states. Thousands of volunteers help raise money for people to get their procedures. They also give people rides. They also watch people’s children while they go to the procedure. They also provide funding for hotel stays, or have people stay over in their actual homes.

It’s really, really, really an incredible safety and support network. In addition to those direct services, they also have been really active in repealing the Hyde Amendment, which would take care of the funding piece, but it doesn’t take care of all the access pieces, like traveling across state lines.

Can you describe the difference between “reproductive health,” “reproductive justice,” and “reproductive rights”?
We see ourselves at the intersection between all of them, but reproductive health is really concerned with the access to health services. Reproductive rights is focused on the actual right to an abortion. Reproductive justice takes a little more of a holistic stance in looking at all of the intersecting oppressions that might impact a person’s ability to make family at all. Not only is it advocating for access to abortion, but also advocating for the right to have child, to not have a child, and to parent the children you have with dignity and respect in a safe community.

The reproductive-justice framework has embraced gender identity and the right to live your life with dignity and respect as the gender that you are. It’s a framework that was started by women of color, black women in particular, and really centers on [people of color] leadership. Most people would say you’re not a reproductive-justice organization if you’re not led by women of color, people of color.

What are some of the common logistical barriers that women who seek help from abortion funds face?
Unfortunately, it can be more complicated than it really needs to be. There’s not a single answer. When people are able to get services earlier, it’s cheaper. It may be $500. When people have to wait longer, the price rises. And often people without means, people making minimum wage, or people who are underemployed will get stuck and have to wait longer, which pushes the gestational age higher.

I think the average the national fund gives away is something like $600. I think the individual funds average at around $250. Usually people who call abortion funds are making multiple calls and piecing together.

We take about 100,000 calls a year, and we’re able to serve about a third [of those women].

The statistic is something like 67 percent of Americans are not prepared for an unexpected cost of $500 or more. So for a lot of people, having to come up with $500 is a big stretch. Like any other medical procedure, if you weren’t able to use your insurance, you might be able to go to the doctor for it. It’s not affordable.

How do you respond to the argument that because some Americans are opposed to abortion they shouldn’t have to subsidize it with their tax dollars?
I definitely always come back to that statistic that the majority of Americans agree abortions should be safe and legal. In terms of taxpayer funding, what about the people who are getting abortions? They’re taxpayers. There’s this idea of “us” and “them.” “We who don’t have abortions shouldn’t have to pay for abortions.” We’re all taxpayers. So we should all have the right to health care that we need when we need it, and it’s as simple as that.

How have your thoughts shifted since the election?
If anything, this really increases our need to organize, and to really get locally focused, because federally it looks like things are going to be pretty anti-choice.

We want to start building relationships with people that call abortion funds, inviting them to our movement, because we really believe that the people that are most impacted by these heinous restrictions are the best people to be on the front lines demanding the dignity and respect and rights that they deserve.

People are already going state to state [for their abortions]. If you can’t afford your procedure now, you certainly can’t afford to travel 600 miles or 1,000 miles. If there’s a call to readers, I would say, please, please, please contact your local abortion fund, become a volunteer, donate, do whatever you can do locally, because they’re going to need you.

All of the unimaginable things, we’re really concerned about those things.

Do you have any advice in terms of dealing with all of this? How do you keep going?
You mean coping mechanisms? [Laughs.]

Yes! I mean, going forward, more Americans are going to look out at the landscape and see what abortion providers have seen for a long time — a hostile government.
A colleague yesterday was saying, “This is a time for ferocious love. This is a time for ferocious levels of compassion.” That adrenaline rush of when a mom has to pick up a car that has fallen on a baby — that’s the level of love we have to draw from. Always coming back to love and compassion, which is really hard to do with so much hateful rhetoric constantly.

But I think anybody who has ever taken a call from somebody who needed help knows it’s really hard not to remember those people. That compels all of us to work harder. To not leave anybody behind. And realizing, “If not us, then who?” We are more important than ever before.

There’s this big urge to be like, “What’s the strategy?” And we have to do that, but if we don’t allow ourselves to grieve, we will break. So balancing honest disappointment, grief, righteous anger, and ferocious love, and being there for people.

Is there any perception or portrayal of women who seek help from you that you in particular want to squash?
Anybody who has the capacity to bear children could become pregnant at any time. So it seems inhumane that only some people can access help or access care. This is really about equality, dignity, love, and compassion. We don’t know what people’s situations are, whether it’s income, abuse, homelessness.

Sixty percent of women who have abortions are already parenting. People will try to make it seem like, “Oh, these people are anti-children or anti-family,” as opposed to understanding that the majority of people are really trying to take care of their families the best that they can.

I always say, “I am a mother, and I’ve had an abortion.” I really come to this work with a deep, deep love for children and wanting children to have the best possible circumstances that they can.

This interview has been edited and condensed.