Nearly every day, a cohort of reproductive justice volunteers at small grassroots funds across the Southeast, connects with each other via encrypted chat. They talk strategy, discuss the latest abortion news, and sometimes may share a cat meme or two – a form of self-care.
And occasionally, an ask, on behalf of a client: “I need $100 … Do you have it?” The money might be for transportation to help get a client to an abortion clinic across the state or across state lines.
Another request might be: “I am overwhelmed; can I shift my calls to you today?” says Laurie Bertram Roberts, who runs the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund in Jackson, Mississippi.
Across conservative states and in cities such as Jackson, home of the state’s only abortion clinic, or in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, grassroots organizations like Roberts’ are working nonstop to support reproductive justice. Funding cuts and increasingly restrictive legislation have transformed large swaths of the Southeast into abortion deserts, where low-income women increasingly have come to depend on these groups to access abortions.
The recent surge in new laws is leaving many women with few options.
“It’s not just about taking away access from one state,” Roberts says. “It’s about making sure we have nowhere to go.”
States like Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Georgia have been a gathering storm around abortion access—and what many believe is the inevitable showdown before the U.S. Supreme Court over the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion a constitutional right. Conservatives hold a 5-4 majority on the court.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey this week signed perhaps the most restrictive abortion measure to date, banning the procedure in almost all cases, including for incest and rape, and making an allowance only for cases where a woman’s health is at “serious” risk. Under the law, doctors who perform abortions can be charged with felonies and sentenced to up to 99 years in prison.
It’s the latest in a series of so-called “heartbeat bills” passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in six other states, including Mississippi. With limited exceptions, the measures outlaw abortions after a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat, usually after six weeks, a point before most women even know they are pregnant.
So far this year, 28 state legislatures have proposed abortion bans, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Several have passed so-called “trigger laws,” which would make abortion illegal if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
The ACLU has said such bans are blatantly unconstitutional and has sued to block Ohio’s heartbeat bill from taking effect in July. It has already blocked the law in Kentucky and vowed to challenge the Alabama and Georgia measures. A challenge to Mississippi’s law is pending.
So far this year, 28 state legislatures have proposed abortion bans.
Reproductive justice advocates and their allies see these cases as real-life Handmaid’s Tale scenarios. They have been raging on social media and scrambling for ways to help women in need.
Amanda Reyes, executive director of Yellowhammer Fund in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said her office on Wednesday fielded so many frantic calls from scared, confused women that she pinned a message to its Twitter account: “YOU CAN STILL GET AN ABORTION IN ALABAMA!”
“This happens every time there’s a restriction,” says Reyes, whose organization, like Roberts’ Mississippi fund, also helps low-income women get to and pay for abortions.
She said one call was from a woman who wanted to know if she could “self-manage” an abortion based on the supplies she had on hand.
“This is the danger of these kinds of things.”
Both Yellowhammer and Robert’s Mississippi Fund are part of the National Network of Abortion Funds, which provides funding to help remove the financial and logistical barriers to abortion access. It supports dozens of funds across the country, including across the Southeast. It is one of several reproductive rights organizations across the country working to help make abortion more accessible, especially for lower-income women.
“We see people facing the most extreme financial and social barriers to getting an abortion,” Reyes says. People sometimes roll their eyes when they hear about a typical case: “a minor who is disabled and her parents who are poor and undocumented. That is normal for us. That’s what we get every day.”
Yellowhammer volunteers started out as clinic escorts, but Reyes said she always had the idea of starting an abortion fund. “Then Trump happened,” she says. And the clinic protestor rhetoric he espoused, unheard of at that level before then, created more of an urgency.
She funded the first abortion in January 2018, and more than 300 abortions last year. She expects to do 1,000 this year.
“You can hear the fear in people’s voices when they call us—nervous and scared. They are talking to complete strangers” about intimate details of their lives.
“We tell them, ‘We’ve got your back” … And you can literally hear a huge sigh of relief.”
In Mississippi, Roberts, who was raised religious and held anti-abortion beliefs until her own personal experience changed her, operates under the motto “by any means necessary.”
She helps clients pay for abortions but also for things like transportation and child care, or for airfare, hotels, and food when they need to travel away from home. Clients are assigned abortion doulas, who might accompany them or be available and on call.
She recalls one client who at 25 weeks pregnant flew—for the first time—out of state for an abortion. “We were literally on call the entire time she was” in Colorado, she says. And Roberts cultivated a contact on the ground there to help her.
Roberts embraces a more holistic approach by also offering services to women who are pregnant and parenting. For example, one client whose abortion she funded a few years ago is now getting help while she’s pregnant.
People who want to help, she says, “need to think about what they are willing to do. What’s your threshold for resistance?”
Beyond Planned Parenthood and NARAL fighting to protect reproductive rights in many parts of the U.S., there are organizations seeking to make abortion more accessible, especially for lower-income women.
Here are some located across the Southeast:
Access Reproductive Care Southeast, ARC, is a volunteer organization in 12 Southeastern states that help people access reproductive care.
National Network of Abortion Funds is a network of over 80 funds that helps lower-income individuals access abortion care.
Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund is volunteer-run group that helps people access abortion in Mississippi.
The Yellowhammer Fund is based in Alabama and provides funding for abortions as well as help with other obstacles, such as travel and lodging.
Lornet Turnbull is the civil liberties editor for YES!, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional freelance writer for The Washington Post. An award-winning enterprise reporter who's worked in media for more than 20 years, Lornet has covered everything from the auto industry and labor unions in Michigan, to real estate and statehouse politics in Ohio, to homelessness in Seattle, to refugee children in the West Bank, and sex workers in Mexico City. She speaks English.