Baltimore Abortion Fund assists patients in the face of stigma, restrictions, and economic challenges

The 2018 Baltimore Women’s March. Photo by Larry Cohen.

There’s no single kind of person who dials the Baltimore Abortion Fund’s helpline.

Established in 2014 and growing in numbers and reach since, BAF offers financial assistance to Maryland residents who can’t afford the full cost of their abortion. Given the wide-ranging medical charges—not to mention the socially-imposed shame that prevents many from otherwise seeking help from friends, family, or work—many would-be patients find themselves in need.

“I think that the people that call us are very reflective of Baltimore City,” says Ann Marie Brokmeier, a BAF case manager. “We have people of various racial backgrounds, genders, sexual orientations, ages, economic backgrounds. . . . I just feel like there’s a lot of stigma around asking for funds for your abortion and I think that people wanna think that there’s a specific person that’s asking that. The more I work the line the more I see that’s not really true.”

A study by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy organization, backs this up: As of 2014, no single racial or ethnic demographic in the United States obtained more abortions over another. In addition, 62 percent of women having abortions claimed a religious affiliation, 60 percent were in their 20s, and 59 percent already had children—overall, the characteristics of people seeking abortions vary.

More consistent are economic circumstances. According to the same study, three quarters of women seeking abortions are economically disadvantaged—which is why nonprofits like BAF, one of over 80 similar organizations throughout the country, are necessary in ensuring safe and equitable abortion access.

Still, the board members and volunteers at BAF report often assisting people seeking abortions who ostensibly have the money or health insurance to cover the costs of the procedure, but encounter other obstacles. BAF case managers have run into situations where the procedure is not covered by a patient’s otherwise decent insurance due to their religious affiliation of their workplace. BAF Board President Annie Hollis recalls funding a first-year college student who couldn’t use her parent’s health insurance because if they found out, they’d pull her out of school.

“Through no fault of her own, she is not able to use the medical insurance that she has,” Hollis says. “That’s one of the particular issues with abortion—if it was any other medical procedure, of course she could use her parents’ insurance.”

The team, which is made up entirely by volunteers, says the only thread shared by the people they help is sincere gratitude—even when BAF can’t cover the full cost or as much as they’d like—and a sense of resolve.

“Almost all of our callers are very sure of their decision,” says Spencer Hall, BAF’s founding president. “It’s not our job to counsel; we’re not really trained for that. But we do have these other resources if somebody seems like they’re on the fence, we can be like, hey, here’s another organization you can call and get some totally non-judgmental feedback about your options or your choices.”

The case managers who answer calls to the helpline are also sure to confirm that it’s the patient seeking the abortion and not someone else.

“We always have to talk to the patient themselves,” Hall says. “We have some callers who are in tougher situations, either a domestic violence situation or they have family that’s not supportive or maybe there’s a language barrier . . . so if we’re talking to a spouse or a boyfriend or a friend or a parent we do make it a point that we have to have some kind of contact with the patient themselves because we wanna make sure that they’re not being coerced or otherwise forced into this.”

Once the case managers gather basic information from the patient, including how far along they are in gestation, the funds raised by BAF go directly to the clinic providing the abortion. Though patients will often call BAF before making an appointment at a clinic so they can know they can afford it beforehand, the case managers need them to make an appointment first.

“We need to know how far along they are and we need to know what the clinic is going to charge them,” says Brittany Eltringham, vice president of the BAF board. “So we’ll usually work with them and explain the process and then they’ll call us back after they’ve scheduled an appointment. We get an idea of how much the procedure is, and then we refer them also to the D.C. Abortion Fund and the National Abortion Federation, and between the three funds we’re usually able to help someone cover the full cost of their procedure—very rarely is any one fund covering the entire cost for someone.”

Initially following the launch of its helpline in October 2014, BAF funded only residents of Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but has since expanded its services to all of Maryland (with the exception of residents of Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, who can find help instead from the D.C. Abortion Fund). In extreme cases, the team has helped out some non-residents coming into Maryland, and hopes to one day more consistently fund patients coming from other states with more restrictions and fewer clinics. Maryland’s only abortion restriction requires that patients under 18 notify at least one parent before obtaining the procedure (physicians may waive parental involvement under some circumstances). Most states have this and more restrictions in place.

“I think people recognize that [Maryland] is a little bit of a safe haven especially for folks in the southeast,” Hollis says. “We get people coming from the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, even from the midwest where the laws are getting really restrictive. So we want to be able to show that support too.”

The 2018 Baltimore Women’s March. Photo by Larry Cohen.

Despite our state’s generally pro-choice-leaning legislature, Maryland is not immune to the national threats against reproductive justice that appear intensified by the Trump era, and measures to make abortion access safer and more equitable are not always met with support. Last month, a federal appeals court panel upheld a ruling against a 2009 Baltimore law requiring crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs)—essentially non-medical, often Christian-affiliated counseling services that discourage women from terminating their pregnancies under the guise of medical care—to disclose that they do not provide abortions to patients through clear signage displayed in their waiting rooms. The court ruled that the law violated CPCs’ first amendment right to free speech. (The Supreme Court is currently considering a similar California law.)

Because they’re not medical facilities, CPCs are easy to open and therefore frequently outnumber actual clinics, often setting up shop in close proximity to abortion providers. In Baltimore, there are only two abortion providers within city lines (Planned Parenthood and American Women’s Services, plus Potomac Family Planning Hillcrest Clinic and Whole Woman’s Health just on the outskirts), and a quick Google search will present several CPC locations throughout the city.

“There’s a CPC like three blocks from my house,” says Brokmeier, who lives in Hampden. “There’s CPCs everywhere and they’re all doing this, so even in a state that’s really supportive of reproductive justice, it’s still happening all the time.”

The aim of the disclosure law was to counteract the often misleading advertising (“Pregnant and scared?”) and stalling tactics used by CPCs to prevent women from obtaining abortions. Stalling is a key point here: At a certain point, the procedure can become prohibitively expensive.

“Up until the end of your first trimester it’s going to be about $400 give or take,” says Hall, noting that price points vary between providers and can also be affected by health conditions the patient may have. “But after that point, after about 13 weeks, every week or two, the cost of the procedure just about doubles.”

The persistence of anti-abortion sentiment and legislature in effect drives up abortion costs as well, especially for late-term abortions. Under threats of violence (among other incidents, late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in his Kansas church by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009), clinics must pay for insurance and security that are unnecessary for other medical providers. On top of that, abortion providers face targeted regulation requiring them to make frequent updates to their facilities. Legislative demands to have clinics meet the standards of “ambulatory surgical centers,” which are necessary only for procedures riskier and more invasive than abortion, are designed to shut down clinics that can’t keep up and make the procedure appear dangerous. In reality, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures out there—less than .05 percent of abortion patients experience complications. As Hall notes, “it’s safer than getting your tonsils out.”

Only four doctors in the entire country openly provide late-term abortions, and one is located in Maryland. Germantown Reproductive Health Services, operated by longtime advocate Dr. LeRoy Carhart, closed its doors last August after its building was purchased by the anti-abortion group Maryland Coalition for Life. Carhart reopened in a new Bethesda location just two months later. The clinic is the only one on the east coast to provide late-term abortions. In late January, the new facility was blessed—not condemned—by four Christian pastors and one rabbi in an interfaith ceremony.

Late-term abortions are most often provided to women who learn late in their pregnancy that their fetus will not survive. Forty-three states prohibit some abortions after a certain point in gestation (17 states ban the procedure after 20 weeks), and President Trump supported a nationwide 20-week ban in his address to the March For Life last month. On Jan. 29, however, the Senate once again rejected a persistent bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks.

Just a year into Trump’s time in office, it’s difficult to gauge the impact of his presidency on reproductive justice, which experienced significant setbacks before he was even elected. The Guttmacher Institute reports that between 2010 and 2016, 338 new abortion restrictions were put in place nationwide—that’s almost 30 percent of the 1,142 restrictions since Roe v. Wade declared the criminalization of abortion unconstitutional in 1973.

Despite the surge in restrictions and the White House’s stance, members of BAF argue that since Trump has been in office, the dialogue surrounding reproductive healthcare has been in effect elevated. The fears and outrageous rhetoric of the administration are moving many more people to link reproductive justice and social justice.

“We talk a lot about people who have too many kids or don’t have enough income shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce,” says Eltringham. “There’s a lot of those stories that are very eugenics-sounding that float around, and I think that’s one of the things that I’m appreciating about people’s consciousness being raised since Trump’s election. Now we’re seeing the other side of that reproductive justice conversation where it doesn’t matter if you’re poor, you should still be able to make choices about your family, including having kids if you want to.”

“Folks that cut social programs often times also ostensibly claim to be ‘pro-life,’” adds Hollis, “and it’s like, well, which is it? Are you going to force people to have children and then not support them? It doesn’t work.”

In 2017, BAF raised $108,658.32 to fund abortions for those in need through monthly and one-time donors as well as happy hours and other events. Their biggest pull of the year is the Bowl-a-Thon: Last year, with the help of matching funds from the National Network of Abortion Funds, BAF raised about $60,000—more than double from the previous year. In their inaugural year, BAF funded 72 patients; in 2017, they served 126.

Though most interactions with patients are brief, the BAF volunteers carry their stories with them. Brokmeier recalls helping out a 15- or 16-year-old who was originally connected to BAF through her high school social worker. The student felt she couldn’t tell her parents and didn’t know where to begin in securing the procedure. The social worker directed her to BAF and opened up a conversation between the student and her parents.

“It was just like a really interesting journey through that week for this person and being able to see how supportive the school social worker was was really important to me because I went to high school in Kansas, which like, I could never have gone to anyone,” says Brokmeier. “I talked to this student twice. The first time you can hear her anxiety around everything and then finally, later in the week when her parents are calling with her, you can hear some of the relief of like, ‘this is really gonna happen for me, we can work through this.’”

The Baltimore Abortion Fund 2018 Bowl-a-Thon is scheduled for April 29 at a location to be announced (follow BAF on Facebook for updates), following a kickoff party at the Windup Space on March 10. BAF will receive 10 percent of sales from Sugar’s Sex Education Open House co-hosted by the Baltimore Beat on Feb. 8 from 6-8 p.m.

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  • TheWhiteLilyBlog

    Such a sad picture with this article, African American women celebrating the extinction of their people through abortion. Liberalism, the philosophy, has the most diabolical tool to carry out the mission of racism, erasing marriage, suppressing wages, using democracy to do it. We as a society need those babies. We need their genius, their labor, their prayers, just as societies long past needed them and celebrated not their deaths, but their births. Fertility is a great prize, every nation knows it, every nation has guarded it if they wanted to survive. American is doomed.

    And the idea that these ‘abortion funds’ are delivered out of concern for the women seeking abortion! It’s Yahoo fascism, ‘here, we’ll help you kill your race, your baby, the fruit of the love between you and the father,” what a sham.

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