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In the months leading up to Monday’s Supreme Court’s decision in June Medical Services v. Russo, which overturned a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges with a nearby hospital, media outlets largely covered Louisiana as they did the near-identical Supreme Court case from Texas four years prior, framing it as a “potentially catastrophic decision” that would have “massive consequences” for the future of abortion in the United States.
While this was certainly true, the case was important not just for its potential impact on future access nationwide.
If the law had been upheld, it would have had an immediate and disastrous impact on low-income Black women across Louisiana, forcing them to seek abortion care in neighboring states, some of which are are actively battling abortion bans.
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Treating cases like June Medical Services as a harbinger for what’s to come also erases a glaring and uncomfortable fact: For people seeking abortion care in the American South, the future so many fear is already a reality, and has been for a long time. Just as the U.S.-Mexico borderlands operate as a “Constitution-free zone” where the Constitution technically applies but is subverted and debased, the American South operates in practice as a Roe-free zone. Kamyon Conner, the executive director of the Texas Equal Access (TEA) Fund, an abortion fund that provides assistance to low-income people in the northern region of Texas, told Prism she would never downplay the importance of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that affirmed abortion is a constitutional right.
“But what good is Roe v. Wade to the South if people can’t access the abortion care they need?” Conner asked.
In the red state/blue state binary that is American politics, the American South is regularly framed as backwards, often because of its strict anti-abortion laws. Conner says she finds that image particularly insulting. The TEA Fund’s executive director said she wants people outside of the region to understand that the South is not a monolith and it is not merely the product of the region’s right wing lawmakers. The area is home to a vast network of BIPOC leaders rooted in reproductive justice who successfully help people access abortion in states notoriously hostile to access.
Abortion funds: a model for how to move forward
Abortion funds across the South offer a model for how to continue serving communities in need, even as attacks on abortion access will surely continue even after yesterday’s decision. The TEA Fund is one of several BIPOC-led abortion funds in the South and one of an estimated 24 BIPOC-led abortion funds part of the National Network of Abortion Funds. Broadly, abortion funds remove financial and logistical barriers to abortion access by working with clinics to help pay for abortions. Many also offer other forms of support, including transportation, lodging, child care, translation, and sometimes even doula services.
As an abortion fund in Texas, the TEA Fund has been through it—not just battling and maneuvering through anti-choice state laws, pivotal Supreme Court cases, and “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinances that create hyper-local barriers to abortion care, but also working to address systemic inequities through advocacy, organizing, and community building.
“Our work is intersectional very purposefully—because it has to be. We don’t have the luxury to just provide direct services, to just do advocacy, to just provide practical support like rides, shelter, food, and lodging,” Conner said. “Some abortion funds do work around immigration and Indigenous rights. Some are doing environmental work, racial justice work, decriminalization work. They are doing abolitionist work. They are advocating for sex workers and uplifitng the LGBTQIA+ community. This is because all of the people impacted by these systems have abortions too.”
Mars Earle, the director of engagement at the Carolina Abortion Fund, said that a useful way for people to understand the power of abortion funds in this moment is to consider how crucial mutual aid has become during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the federal government floundered in its response to the coronavirus, community coalitions formed across the U.S., using inventive and resourceful ways to get aid to those most in need of masks, food, and other necessities. Abortion funds are mutual aid, Earle said; “they are systems of care and support.”
“In my experience, abortion funds in the South strive to not be transactional. Part of that is because of the layers of barriers and who is impacted, but it’s also just not how the work is approached. This isn’t about paying down debt. It is a practical thing, but it’s not one and done,” Mars said. “This is very much about relationship-building, consciousness-shifting, and emotional support. That is so much of the work that we do and as people become more and more alarmed about potential repercussions in the Louisiana case, I think the community care and mutual aid we strive to provide is something that is powerful to consider.”
In an ideal world, according to advocates who spoke to Prism, abortion funds wouldn’t need to exist. In the meantime, these funds serve as a crucial stop gap to unjust anti-abortion laws intended to strip people of their constitutional rights, agency, and power.
Building collective power in the face of opposition
Abortion bans aren’t just about abortion, wrote Alicia Garza, president of the Black Futures Lab and the co-founder of the Movement for Black Lives, last year after a series of abortion bans pummeled Southern states that have high concentrations of Black and low-income people. They are about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and who wants to keep whom from gaining it. In the face of these dynamics, Garza, wrote that southerners struggle “to be powerful against an entrenched network of people in power who don’t necessarily represent or even reflect their own constituents.”
In the piece, Garza pointed to Monica Simpson, the executive director of the groundbreaking reproductive justice organization SisterSong, as an example of a pivotal leader in the South. The goal of the Atlanta, Georgia-based organization is to improve the institutional policies and systems that impact the reproductive lives of marginalized communities. Simpson’s work is a continuation of a long legacy of “intersectional Southern activism” too often erased and infrequently deferred to. In May of last year when the Alabama Senate passed its abortion ban, Simpson wrote that while Southern history is steeped in injustice, it has borne a “resilience and a resistance that we should look to as a model for how to move forward.”
While legislative and political attacks are not new and certainly not unfamiliar to reproductive justice advocates in the South—even during a pandemic, as the Tennessee legislature just illustrated by passing a covert, middle of the night anti-abortion bill—the fight can be exhausting, said Kwajelyn Jackson, the executive director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Jackson’s clinic has been central to the fight against Georgia’s abortion ban signed last year by Gov. Brian Kemp. The ban was set to go into effect on the first day of this year, but a judge blocked the law while it plays out in court. Oral arguments in the case began June 15.
Unlike other states in the region, Georgia has had a lot of success in holding back anti-abortion legislation, but Jackson said she is deeply concerned by the way the anti-abortion movement is shifting, concentrating its efforts on the courts and in a more recent development, co-opting the language of the Movement for Black Lives as part of its targeted harassment of the Feminist Women’s Health Center, where 50% of patients are Black. But Jackson says she doesn’t want to be anywhere else.
“People not in this region may not understand this, but there are real benefits to working in Georgia and other areas of the South,” Jackson said. “We are coordinated and we are organized because reproductive justice really blossomed here. Black women, queer folks, and young people are working in coalition here and it allows us to work across issues and build collective power.”
‘This is our legacy’
One needs to look no further than Alabama for an example of collective power building. Exactly one year after Alabama passed its own abortion ban (which like Georgia’s, is temporarily blocked), the Yellowhammer Fund took an unprecedented step: It purchased the West Alabama Women’s Center, which provides more than half the abortions in the state and serves people across the Southeast. As Becca Andrews reported for Mother Jones, abortion funds like the Yellowhammer Fund have traditionally operated separately from clinics. “Consolidating their mission,” Andrews wrote, could “shore up the precarious network of access in the region and make abortion care available to low-income folks.
Purchasing an abortion clinic in a state that instituted an abortion ban may seem counterintuitive to some, but the Yellowhammer Fund’s executive director, Amanda Reyes, told Prism there is never a good time to open an abortion clinic. According to Reyes, one of the primary reasons the clinic’s former owner sold it to the Yellowhammer fund is because she knew that no matter what came up through the courts, what the Alabama legislature tried to pass, or what happens in the June Medical Services case, the Yellowhammer Fund “would fight to keep the clinic open and accessible in Alabama.”
“We focus on what we can control. We can use our collective resources and networks to make sure people in our community get the care they need. When you prioritize getting care for your community, that’s a radical perspective,” Reyes said. “It’s easy to scapegoat the South for all of these anti-choice laws, but they don’t come from the people. [Abortion funds] are focused on the people in the country who are the most marginalized. No matter what changes, we need to keep focusing on making sure the people in our communities who need abortions can get them without being criminalized.”
This is something that speaks directly to the mission of El Paso, Texas’ West Fund, an abortion fund in West Texas that advocates for abortions without borders.” Alexis Andrea, the helpline manager at the West Fund, told Prism that people seeking abortion care in this heavily militarized portion of the state are not only subjected to Texas’ anti-abortion and anti-immigrant laws, but they are also navigating a “medical desert.” There is only one full-time provider in the region, and they don’t work with abortion funds.
“Operating in a border town gives you a completely different perspective when it comes to overcoming barriers, and it really teaches you about resilience and resourcefulness,” Andrea said. “People maybe don’t realize that if we wanted to send patients to other clinics in Texas, it would take over eight hours to get there from where we are. It’s a burden and an unrealistic expectation in a low-income city, so we’ve had to develop other networks and we’ve developed relationships with people in New Mexico, which is only four hours away.”
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In the West Fund’s network is Indigenous Women Rising (IWR), an Indigenous-led and centered reproductive justice collective on Tiwa land that funds abortions exclusively for Indigenous people. IWR organizer, Nicole Martin, told Prism that one of the most important characteristics of abortion funds is how nimble they are and the ways they can adjust to meet the needs of various Indigenous communities. While their abortion fund is based in the Southwest, IWR funds abortions across the country, including the South, stepping in wherever Indigenous people are trying to access care.
“We saw that there really wasn’t any cultural sensitivity for Indigenous people when it comes to abortion and we really wanted to respond to that with our own abortion fund,” Martin said. “It’s the cultural sensitivity and awareness that we can really offer because when it comes to abortion, many people in our communities will not feel comfortable talking to someone who is not familiar with their spirituality or the teachings they were brought up with. Responding to the needs and respecting the beliefs of our callers’ communities are really important to us.”
Before the Supreme Court’s decision, the abortion fund Access Reproductive Care (ARC)-Southeast was gearing up to support the needs of communities across Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia. ARC-Southeast’s co-founder and co-director, Oriaku Njoku, assumed that if the Supreme Court upheld the law, there would be a domino effect, forcing people to leave Louisiana to access abortion care in neighboring states. But Njoku told Prism that no matter what happened in the June Medical Services case, ARC-Southeast could “not operate in fear.”
While Supreme Court cases are important, Njoku said, they cannot be treated as the end-all, be-all for abortion access. ARC-Southeast was founded by three queer Black women who met working at the same clinic, seeing firsthand the barriers that BIPOC communities experienced trying to access care. The abortion fund’s founders committed to doing everything in their power to help people access abortion, which continues to be the fund’s primary mission.
“No matter the ebbs and flows of the courts, we are steadfast in our commitment,” Njoku said. “Abortion is still legal across the United States, but legality is not the same as accessibility. You can still get an abortion in Georgia and Alabama right now, but is it accessible? That’s why I say that while these cases are important, they can’t be it. Especially not here [in the South].”
Working in a region hostile to abortion access does not mean you “shrink yourself,” said Quita Tinsley, ARC-Southeast’s co-director; it means “you embrace big, bold ideas.” An example of this is the groundswell of opposition ARC-Southeast created with other reproductive justice advocates as part of #PissedOffPeaches, a movement that took a multi-pronged approach to fighting Georgia’s abortion ban. ARC-Southeast organized against the ban as various industries boycotted the state because of it.
To Tinsley, it made little sense to abandon Georgia residents at a time when the most marginalized among them would face insurmountable barriers accessing necessary health care, but people across the state are working in unison with reproductive justice advocates to fight back. Tinsley says this is yet another example of the “radical work” being done in the South, work that rarely gets highlighted in reporting that purposefully or inadvertently paints the South as a regressive place, especially as the country awaited the decision in the June Medical Services case.
“I’ve seen more Black women and femme leadership in the south than I’ve seen in other regions of the country. This is a place steeped in resistance, and so of course the way the South is talked about doesn’t resonate with me,” Tinsley said. “You know what comes to mind for me when I think of the south? Harriet Tubman in the woods with a gun leading Black folks to freedom. How are you going to paint this as ‘Trump country’ when this is our legacy?”
Tina Vasquez is Prism’s gender justice reporter. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by our national media. Publishing original reporting, analysis, and commentary, Prism challenges dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and works to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy.