Abortion is in the headlines this week.  On Saturday jsmdlawyer at Daily Kos diaried Clarence Thomas’ attempt to prevent an imprisoned woman in Missouri from having the abortion to which she was legally entitled, just because she didn’t have the $350 she needed to get to the clinic (before we were through with that one, she could have hired a limo, but how much better for women everywhere that she didn’t need it after all).  

And this morning none of us was shocked–shocked!— to hear about Harriet Miers’ 1989 promise to support a Constitutional amendment banning abortion altogether.  

But now I’m going to tell you an abortion story that hasn’t made the news, and probably won’t–a story about the women of Katrina, and about the hurricane relief effort no one talks about–the Katrina aid that dare not speak its name.

How many young women did we all see on our TV screens, bedding down on the floor at the Astrodome in Houston or Reunion Arena in Dallas with their babies and toddlers, surrounded by crumpled plastic bags that held all they had left in the world? There seemed to be thousands of them, and then more thousands.  As in any population of young women, many of them were pregnant.  And for a great number of those young women–the ones for whom unexpected and unwanted pregnancies represented a second disaster–the devastation that their lives had become was worsened by the anxiety of wondering how they could find the help they needed to have a desperately desired abortion.  

Fortunately, they didn’t have to depend on FEMA.  Low-income women who are residents of Texas and who cannot afford the cost an abortion are able to rely on two sources of help–the Lilith Fund and the Texas Equal Access Fund–volunteer nonprofit organizations that immediately expanded their previous scope to offer all possible assistance to displaced women who were relocated to Texas in the aftermath of Katrina.   Lilith and TEA typically provide somewhere from $50-100 in assistance, and as providers, we generally find a way to make up the rest.  

This morning at the clinic I was paged to the phone to take a call that meant bad news for any low-income woman in this very large state who needs an abortion.  Because of the huge additional burdens on its resources since the first part of September, the Lilith Fund has been completely wiped out and will no longer be able to offer help to any woman in Texas for at least the next one to two months. Nothing like this has ever happened before, because the Lilith Fund is a well-managed and extremely responsible organization, but providing care for the women of Katrina has overwhelmed us all, funders and providers alike.  

The need of women who are faced with rebuilding their entire lives is tremendous, and the response of the pro-choice community has been remarkable.  In Arkansas, a state with fewer evacuees, Dr. Jerry Edwards and Dr. William Harrison are offering abortion care without charge to women displaced by Katrina–and quite predictably have been condemned for it by all the usual suspects.  But in the much more highly populated metropolitan areas of Texas, the need has outpaced our ability to provide services to all the women who need us, even at reduced fees.  That’s what we get for having kept the regular cost of abortion care so low that, as a colleague in Louisiana often says, we seem to be producing quality medical care out of thin air.

The few national funding groups that usually can assist women in any part of the country now are so depleted that they are unable to help almost anyone but Katrina victims, and the Lilith Fund–which together with the TEA Fund has carried most of the burden here in Texas from the beginning–has been hit so hard during the last couple of months that it can no longer help anyone at all.

And there are so many women who need that help.  Gretchen Dyer of the TEA Fund can tell you about them better than I can.

More than a choice
When Tracy called, she had the curtains closed and the door bolted. She spoke in a low whisper that made it hard to understand her. She was hiding in her apartment with her two children because her ex-boyfriend had threatened to kill her. When she’d contacted the police, they’d informed her that he was a known criminal and advised her to get as far away from him as possible.

This was good advice. The problem was, Tracy was a struggling single mother with no savings, no place to go and no one to protect her. She was also pregnant.

Tracy couldn’t manage another child on her own, and she didn’t want to bear the man’s child or have any further connection to him. So she’d decided to have an abortion. For her, this was more than a choice. It was a chance to survive, to start over and make a safe life for herself and her children.
I speak to dozens of women in difficult situations every week, some more desperate than Tracy’s. Most are single mothers working low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough to support their families. Some are victims of rape or incest, women on the run from domestic abuse, women with serious health problems or teenagers trying to finish high school and keep from getting thrown out of their homes because they’re pregnant.
Last week Charlene called. A few months out of treatment for methadone addiction and only a few days out of a homeless shelter, she’s trying to get her life back together. Her child is about to start school, and she’s looking for a job. Another baby right now will put her simple goals out of reach.

And then there was Louise, a single mother of two with breast cancer. She was too sick to work, had no medical insurance and had used up her savings on medical bills. The doctor advised her that the pregnancy was life-threatening for her and the radiation treatments an unacceptable risk to the fetus. The decision to abort was a life-and-death decision for her and for her two children who need her. It was a whole lot more than a choice.

As most of you know, Texas covers about the same land area as France.  There were countless Tracys and Charlenes and Louises even before any of us ever heard of Katrina.  And they’re still here, and still needing help, along with 41 year-old “Mary” from Slidell, a mother of three with hypertension and diabetes, and 13 year-old “Tiffany” from New Orleans, who just wants to fit in with the other seventh-graders at her new school–both of whom were patients at our clinic on the same day last week.  And the phone just keeps on ringing . . .

Without the partnership provided by the Lilith Fund, the TEA Fund will be left alone to carry the almost unimaginable burden of helping numberless women who are living in circumstances more desperate than most of us have ever known.

Every donation that Lilith and TEA receive goes directly to a woman who needs it. For a woman from Louisiana still cooped up in a motel and buying no-name macaroni and cheese to feed her kids on the shrinking balance of her FEMA check–or for a Texas woman sleeping in her car with her two year-old because she’s afraid to go home–no amount is too small to make a difference.  By the very nature of their work, Lilith and TEA have the strictest of privacy policies. There are no third party middlemen, and their operating expenses pretty much consist of a toll-free phone number, a few cell phones and a checkbook.  

When I took that call this morning, my first thought after “Oh, my God, no” was that I knew a lot of good people who would want to help Tracy and Charlene and Louise and Mary and Tiffany just as much as Lilith and TEA and I do.

The Lilith Fund

Texas Equal Access Fund

For all of them, for every one of them, thanks a lot for anything you can do.

Update [2005-10-20 1:59:42 by moiv]: A friend at Lilith sent me some figures this evening, and I wanted to share them with you.

“In April, the Lilith hotline took 463 calls…in September we took 797

In 2004 we paid out around $17,000 in vouchers.
So far in 2005…a whopping $38,000″

Those numbers represent a lot of women in a lot of trouble. I’m only one person in one clinic in one city of a big state, but today I met women whom you’ve already helped. The volunteers at TEA and Lilith are feeling pretty overwhelmed right now–which for them is normal–but this time, and for a change, it’s a good feeling. They’ve said thank you to me today about half a dozen times, and I feel the need to pass that along to its rightful owners.

From all of them, and most especially from all the women, thank you.

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