I originally wrote this as a comment about Arlen Spector a few days ago. I’ve posted it today on Kos as a diary, and now it’s a real diary here.
I don’t hear stories about this at all.
Say you lived on the Gulf Coast in August 2005. You’ve been raped. You don’t report the rape. You don’t even tell your family or friends. Yet you fear that you have been impregnated.
You don’t want this baby.
And then there is this Cat 4-5 hurricane that has been threatening to come ashore for days.
Or say you’re expecting a baby. You’re not married. You are only having the baby because your boyfriend wants it and has promised to care for you and it.
Katrina hits the Gulf Coast full force. You are brought to safety, but the boyfriend turns up missing. Is he dead, unaccounted for but alive, or has he taken the opportunity to disappear himself and back off his commitment?
What do you do then?
Eleanor Bader tells all of these stories and more: about how Planned Parenthood and the National Network of Abortion Funds has saved these women’s lives again.
Bader is a teacher, writer and activist who frequently contributes to The Brooklyn Rail, Library Journal, Lilith, and Z. she is also the co-author of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism.
This article was published December 17 on Portside.
Several days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, 20-year-old Marta was raped. Distraught and scared, she returned to her Mississippi apartment–without filing a police report or telling anyone about the assault–only to be piled into the family car with her parents and siblings. The family headed north, eventually landing in Memphis to wait out the storm. Three weeks later, while living with extended family, Marta took a home pregnancy test and confirmed what she’d suspected. Nearly penniless and severely traumatized, she went to a women’s health center she’d found listed in the Yellow Pages and requested an abortion.
Luckily for Marta, clinic staff called the National Network of Abortion Funds [NNAF]–an organization of 106 community-based groups that help low-income women and girls finance abortions–and secured a small grant to pay for the procedure. ‘We’ve raised $15,000 in a month earmarked for hurricane relief,’ says NNAF Executive Director Stephanie Poggi. ‘Since the storm we’ve gotten lots of calls from pregnant women and clinics asking us to funnel money to them.’
Each caller’s story is different, Poggi adds, but all reflect profound desperation. ‘On top of everything that’s happened, not having a place to live, not having a source of income, and not knowing where they’re going to end up, pregnancy can be an overwhelming burden. We’re helping the women in greatest need. They have nothing and sound so tired when they ask, “Can you help me?”
Within three weeks of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, NNAF assisted 21 women and teens. Lynn Jackson, a NNAF board member, describes the callers as running a gamut between the newly pregnant and those who knew they’d conceived before the storms made landfall. ‘One woman we helped was going to have an abortion in New Orleans but she was evacuated to Houston before her appointment. She rescheduled it in Houston but the day of the appointment Hurricane Rita hit and she was evacuated again. This woman had to have a second trimester abortion because so much time had passed.’
Jackson is matter-of-fact as she recounts the stories she has heard. One caller, she reports, had been told by her obstetrician that the pregnancy was high-risk. ‘ She’d had a stillborn in the past, as well as several miscarriages, and was raising a disabled son. She was now almost 12 weeks pregnant, had been relocated from a suburb of New Orleans to Dallas, and both she and her boyfriend were unemployed. She said she felt there was no way she could have another child.’ Still another caller told Jackson that she had welcomed the pregnancy until Katrina separated her from her partner. With no idea where her boyfriend had gone, or if he was still alive, she said that she was too emotionally spent to have the baby and requested NNAF’s help.
Although NNAF has been as generous as possible, it is not the only group fielding calls from despondent women. Within days of the first storm, Planned Parenthood began raising money and dispensing free Emergency Contraception and hormonal birth control in affected areas.
‘As soon as the first punch, Katrina, hit, we asked ourselves how we could be responsive to the evacuees coming into Texas,’ says Peter Durkin, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas. ‘People stepped up and got the displaced into shelters. Once we got them a roof over their heads, we started to reach out in terms of our services. Obviously, if you are an evacuee, the last thing you need is an unintended pregnancy. We decided to give anyone who’d been displaced one month’s worth of free birth control pills. We’re also working with the media, the Red Cross, and FEMA and asking that they keep us on their list of healthcare providers offering relief services.’
Within days of Katrina, PPHSET’s 10 clinics-several of them badly damaged by wind, flooding or power outages-began working to publicize the availability of Emergency Contraception. ‘We quickly saw 175 evacuees in Houston who wanted EC,’ says Durkin. ‘We said, You can come to us if you had unprotected intercourse.’ Our goal is to make sure word gets out that Planned Parenthood is there for folks.’
Larry Rodick, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Alabama, oversees five health centers covering 67 Alabama counties, southern Mississippi and Western Florida. ‘The evacuees don’t know where services are or how to reach them, so we’ve done publicity to tell them. It worked. Our Hattiesburg, Mississippi clinic is inundated. We’re giving out free birth control and free Emergency Contraception at all our sites. All a woman needs to say is that she’s from an affected area. As information about this gets out, we’ll see what happens to our numbers. We plan to give out free birth control as long as people’s lives are unstable. It will depend on the money raised, but we hope to make two-to-three month’s worth of free pills available. Some of the evacuees have resources, but most need help. I’d say we’re subsidizing 90 percent of evacuee services.’
Still, helping is not always as easy as it sounds. Rodick says that PPA’s plan to set up temporary satellite clinics along the Gulf coast has hit numerous roadblocks. ‘You assume you can just go down there and find places to rent,’ he says. ‘But some places still have no water, others have no power, and some landlords don’t want to rent to PPA. On top of this, every hotel in the Gulf area is full of evacuees and construction people. From New Orleans to Mobile, north 100 miles, there are no rooms. We sent staff from Birmingham to Mobile and they would have had to sleep on the clinic floor if a board member hadn’t put them up.’
Rodick calls Katrina ‘a micro test of disaster management.’ Although he concedes that rebuilding and providing services is harder and slower than he imagined, he believes Planned Parenthood is up to the task. His colleague, Peter Durkin of Houston, agrees. ‘The adversity that Planned Parenthood has historically confronted is good preparation for dealing with a large-scale crisis,’ Durkin says. ‘Everyone is tired and the tension is perceptible, but this is a time to come back in a more robust way. Louisiana was a medically underserved area; Katrina just brought out the disparities in public health services. This is the challenge. It’s time to contemplate expansion.’
For their part, NNAF is pulling together a Southern States Organizing Project. ‘The forward looking piece out of this disaster is that we’re going to put more resources into building up the funds that already exist in Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and create new ones to assist poor women in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi,’ says Executive Director Stephanie Poggi. ‘None of the southern states have Medicaid funding so the abortion funds in the region need to be stronger.’