When the US supreme court overturned Roe v Wade last June, Kamyon Conner sat at her desk and sobbed.
As executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund – a nonprofit based in north Texas that helps patients pay for their abortions – Conner was forced to shut off the group’s hotline for the first time in its nearly 20-year history. That meant cutting off a critical avenue for hundreds of largely low-income people of color to afford essential out-of-state care.
With Roe overturned, Texans – already living under a ban on abortion after six weeks – still had two months until a full “trigger” ban would be enacted. However, anti-abortion Republican attorney general Ken Paxton issued a notice that day, encouraging local district attorneys to immediately pursue criminal charges against anyone who helps people obtain an abortion. All 10 Texas funds quickly ceased abortion support services out of fear of jail time for themselves, their clients and their supporters.
Now, after nearly nine months of pause, organizations like the Texas Equal Access Fund are finally resuming services – with caution.
This comes after US district court judge Robert Pitman granted a preliminary injunction in February that prevents a handful of district attorneys from prosecuting organizations that help Texans with out-of-state abortion care, in response to a class action lawsuit filed by eight abortion funds. The funds hope Pitman issues permanent protection in the coming months and also expands his ruling to cover all of the state’s district attorneys in Texas.
Largely grassroots nonprofits, abortion funds assist low-income residents with financing either abortion procedures directly or practical support services like travel to clinics, hotel stays, gas, air fare and childcare. For nearly 30 years, abortion funds have played an instrumental role all over the country in connecting the most vulnerable people with abortion access, a role that is only escalating in importance as more states move to ban abortion in the post-Roe world. Donations to funds around the country soared after the Dobbs decision that toppled Roe: in the five months after the ruling, the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) raised more than $8m, compared with less than $2m in individual donations in all of 2020.
Texas – the largest state in the US to ban abortion care – is home to more abortion funds than any other state, comprising more than 10% of funds nationally, says Oriaku Njoku, executive director of the NNAF. Texans must travel at least 515 miles to the nearest out-of-state clinic for care, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
The number of residents who were not able to access abortion through Texas funds during the prolonged pause in operations is likely in the thousands. Even prior to shutting down the helpline, abortion funds like Texas Equal Access often could not meet the high demand for abortion aid in Texas: it was able to fund, for example, less than one-third of the 5,000 people who requested help in 2021. Of the roughly 4,000 calls the Lilith Fund, an Austin-based group, received in 2020, it was only able to fund about 1,000.
“It was heartbreaking knowing we couldn’t help our callers – these are some of the most marginalized people in the state that have the most pressing need for support,” says Conner, who has worked at the Texas Equal Access Fund since 2006. “Some have undoubtedly been forced to give birth against their will.”
Fund Texas Choice, which offers travel assistance, resumed “limited” services in early March, while the Texas Equal Access Fund started back up last week. The Lilith Fund announced it would finally restart its abortion funding on Monday.
“We are overjoyed to be able to fund abortions for Texans again,” says Neesha Davé, interim executive director of the Lilith Fund. “Even though no one should have to leave home for healthcare, it means everything to us to support Texans who have been forced to travel to access abortion care.”
Paxton’s threats against the funds are part of a broader campaign by anti-abortion activists in the state.
In 2020, abortion funds were deemed “criminal” organizations in local “sanctuary for the unborn” ordinances proliferating in Texas. Last year, the funds received cease-and-desist letters from an anti-abortion lawmaker and faced the threat of legal action from anti-abortion advocates that alleged the organizations “aided and abetted” prohibited abortions.
Not all funds have resumed services, including the Frontera Fund, which assists those living on the US-Mexico border – mainly Latino and undocumented people who experience the longest travel times to clinics and already face logistical barriers due to immigration status. The same goes for Jane’s Due Process, which helps teenagers obtain a judge’s order to access abortion without parental consent.
Both funds have yet to resume services, attributing their caution to the particular vulnerability of their clients.
“We have been struggling with so much fear, anxiety and frustration for our staff and for our clients,” says Nan Kirkpatrick of Jane’s Due Process.
The Republican-dominated legislature currently in session could make the funds’ recent court victory short-lived.
Among many pieces of legislation, one bill seeks to criminalize abortion funds by making it a felony for any Texan to pay for any portion of the cost of an abortion – even if the procedure occurs in a state in which abortion is legal – and forces internet service providers to block websites affiliated with an abortion fund. It also grants the attorney general the power to prosecute violations of the law if a local prosecutor declines to pursue charges. Another bill would remove district attorneys who decline to prosecute violations of abortion law, a direct rebuke to the swell of progressive DAs who have said they will not prosecute abortion-related crimes. The legislative session ends on 29 May.
“We have been threatened time and time again by extremists,” says Davé. “It’s exhausting and frustrating, but we will continue to be resilient and fight back against unfair laws to ensure we are still here to help people access the care they need.”