Miss. organization funds abortions as first of its kind in state
By Cambria Abdeen
While Laurie Bertram was working as a clinic escort at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, she encountered a patient in the parking lot who was $50 short of the money she needed to get an abortion.
“She was in the parking lot crying,” Bertram said. “We were digging in our pockets for money and calling people to help out, and we realized we didn’t ever want to be in that position again.”
This encounter led Bertram and Yolanda Walker in 2014 to establish the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund (MRFF), a nonprofit organization that provides women with free access to full reproductive healthcare.
“We wanted to be able to offer nonjudgmental, nonsecular, evidence-based information, practical support and financial assistance,” Bertram said.
MRFF is associated with the National Network of Abortion Funds and is the only abortion fund operating in Mississippi. They offer a variety of services including abortion funding, emergency and long term contraception, comprehensive sex-education and adoption referrals. This assistance is crucial considering that 40 percent of abortion patients have incomes below the federal poverty line.
In 1973, Roe v. Wade recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court has since upheld this decision, but states have continued to propose and adopt legislation designed to further limit reproductive health rights. Now, Mississippi has some of the most restrictive laws in the country, creating a near-total abortion ban and inflating procedure costs.
The Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the only remaining abortion clinic in the state. Jackson Women’s Health Organization director Shannon Brewer said that since there is such a high demand, staffing and funding the clinic is difficult.
“The cost [of abortion] is affected with the patients as far as being able to travel and come here when there’s no other facilities,” Brewer said. “Most of our costs come from what we have to purchase and flying doctors in and out.”
Abortion clinics must comply with state laws that regulate when and where procedures may take place. As a result, the abortion rate hit a historic low in 2014, with only 14 abortions per 1000 women ages 15 to 44.
By law, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization is not allowed to accept insurance to fund abortions. Brewer said MRFF is a great benefit because it helps offset abortion costs.
“They help us with any patient who doesn’t have money or needs gas, hotels — just about anything a patient needs,” Brewer said.
The choice to have an abortion is a serious consideration that directly relates to abortion costs. Bertram said timeliness, family support and previous pregnancies can affect a woman’s decision. Christen Hemmins, a leading advocate for reproductive justice in Oxford, Mississippi said MRFF is a benefit considering the low incomes in the state.
“Sometimes women just can’t afford it because they wait until it’s too late [in the pregnancy term]. Because they can’t get the money together, they’re unable to get an abortion,” said Hemmins.
In September 2016, 24/7 Wall Street reported that Mississippi was the poorest state in the nation with a median household income of $40,593 and had the highest poverty rate at 22 percent.
For young women struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, Bertram said MRFF is there to help those choosing abortion, adoption or motherhood.
“We have programs in place to support whoever comes to us, regardless of their decision to have an abortion or not,” Bertram said.
The National Network of Abortion Funds reported that MRFF has provided 14 people with financial assistance, 3 people with Plan B and an estimate of 160 to 280 women with referrals and logistical or emotional support in the span of 15 months.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, “More than half of all U.S. abortion patients in 2014 were in their 20s: Patients aged 20 to 24 obtained 34 percent of all abortions, and patients aged 25 to 29 obtained 27 percent.”
MRFF has seen a surge in the past year of college students seeking information, funding or assistance. Bertram said around 30 percent of its clientele is local college students, many of which come from deeply religious backgrounds.
“A lot of times, our college students are the ones who don’t have a lot of support,” Bertram said. “They’re scared and, a lot of times, they’re very misinformed.”
Typically, their misinformation comes from anti-abortion websites that contain misinformation intended to frighten or discourage women who are considering an abortion.
Women often come to Bertram worried about common myths such as abortion causes breast cancer or negative psychological effects. In fact, a study conducted in March by the Women’s Health Issues journal found that 67 percent of 494 female responders believed one in five abortion myths.
“I’ve heard similar phrases to the effect of ‘I just got sucked in to all these pages, and then I got scared because they said I was going to die or never have kids again.’ It’s like the WebMD effect,” Bertram said.
The decision to terminate pregnancy can be a stressful one, and many students find it difficult to imagine themselves in that situation.
“I would definitely have an abortion because I’m not financially or emotionally stable enough to raise a child on my own,” said University of Mississippi junior Caroline Crawford.
UM graduate student Amanda Fliflet was conflicted with the thought of an unplanned pregnancy.
“I’d cry a lot because I certainly don’t want kids now. I’d immediately call my family and get their opinions as to what I should do,” Fliflet said.
Another UM student said she was confident in her ability to raise a child while in school.
“Today, at the age I am now, I’d still have the baby,” said 20-year-old Courtney Wells. “Just because I’m in college doesn’t mean I can’t raise a kid.”
Once the decision to have an abortion has been made, a woman may choose abortion by pill or in-clinic procedure.
For an abortion by pill, the pregnancy term must be at or under 11 weeks, and the Jackson Women’s Health Center’s cost is $600. For their surgical abortions, the pregnancy term must be at or under 16 weeks, and the cost ranges from $600 to $800.
“People are struggling. Most average Mississippi folk don’t have $600 just sitting in the bank,” Bertram said.
For college students, an abortion can be an expensive procedure.
“How can you afford an abortion on work study money?” Bertram said. “$600 is a lot of money if you ain’t got it, no matter if you go to Jackson State, Millsaps or Belhaven.”
Bertram said there are many reasons why women delay their decision to terminate their pregnancy.
“People don’t sit around and wait until they’re 20 weeks pregnant to get an abortion,” Bertram said. “People don’t say ‘Hey, I want to go five states over and spend $3,000 on an abortion that’s going to be three days long.”
The cost of the pill or procedure itself is only a portion of the expenses necessary to get an abortion. State-mandated, pre-abortion counseling and 24 to 72 hour waiting periods require women to have temporary lodging, as well as daily transportation to and from the clinic.
After an abortion, women usually need some form of contraception. And, while both abortion options rarely have complications, there is a risk of infection and internal bodily injury which could create additional medical expenses.
MRFF has made it their primary goal to assist women will all expenses related to the abortion, with no limit on how much money a single patient can receive.
“We assist 10 people a month from the clinic in some way whether it’s directly funding their abortion or providing another type of practical support,” Bertram said.
Outside of Mississippi, MRFF has provided help to women in Georgia, Arkansas, New Mexico, Hawaii and several other states.
The idea that abortion is socially unacceptable is extremely heightened in the South, especially Mississippi.
“Abortion stigma is a nationwide problem. Even in states with great access to abortion, it’s not like it isn’t still stigmatized there,” Bertram said. “Just because a state has abortion-friendly laws, doesn’t mean that the climate for women feels less hostile.”
Bertram said the stigma is often shown by communities religious figures who condemn women based on their personal decision to obtain an abortion.
“The presence of church is so strong here,” Bertram said. “People lack resources, and one of the things that hinders them from asking for help from their families is religion.”
Bertram said when women feel like they will be shamed for their decision by their family, the option to receive financial aid from relatives is no longer available.
The five pro-abortion rights volunteers of MRFF make them a rarity in the largely anti-abortion state.
“We’re Mississippi, and people think that there’s just no one who supports access, and that we wouldn’t have support enough to exist as an organization,” Bertram said.
However, Bertram said that is simply not true. The organization is in process of receiving a large private company grant, their private donations have increased, and they are planning several fundraisers.
“It’s amazing,” Bertram said. “We’re going into our fourth year, and the support has just been amazing.”