The Chicago Abortion Fund: Making Reproductive Justice Real

On the anniversary of Roe v.Wade, the Chicago Tribune ran an article about Gaylon Alcaraz and the Fund. For your convenience we have republished it below.



Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal; 

Chicago Abortion Fund helps poor pay for services 35 years after Roe, group uses old spirit to get service for all

By Judy Peres
Tribune reporter
January 21, 2008

The voice on the other end of the phone line was soft but urgent.

"My daughter needs help," the woman said. "She's gotten herself into a situation."

Emelda Ortiz had heard the story before -- many times. Once a week for two hours, Ortiz staffs a hot line for women and girls desperate to terminate unwanted pregnancies but unable to afford the procedure.

Thirty-five years ago Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court said women have a constitutional right to choose abortion. Yet that right is difficult

to exercise for large segments of the population -- those too poor to pay for the procedure and those living too far away from a facility that provides it. Medicaid does not cover abortion because a 1976 law forbids the use of federal funds for that purpose.

In Cook County, Stroger Hospital performs first-trimester abortions on a sliding-fee scale, but many women say they can't get through the red tape to obtain a timely appointment.

"Abortion is legal," said Gaylon Alcaraz, director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, "but low-income women still can't access it."

So, like the women of an earlier generation who ran underground networks to connect women with illegal abortion services, people like Ortiz and Alcaraz are doing what they can to help out.

Their fund provides vouchers that are accepted by local abortion providers. The woman whose daughter was in trouble got a $320 voucher to help pay for a second-trimester abortion that cost $770.

"We issued nine vouchers that day totaling $1,650," Ortiz said.

The Chicago Abortion Fund, founded in 1985 by a coalition of women's organizations, is one of 104 similar groups affiliated with the National Network of Abortion Funds.

They are reminiscent of the Abortion Counseling Service of Women's Liberation, which was formed nearly two decades earlier and operated under the code name "Jane."

In an operation that supporters compare to the Underground Railroad that helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom before Abolition, Jane helped 11,000 women end their pregnancies before Roe vs. Wade made their efforts unnecessary in 1973.

Jane framed abortion as a civil rights issue, arguing that if women did not have the right to control their own bodies they would remain second-class citizens.

That resonates with Alcaraz.

The way she sees it, Roe liberated middle-class women. But the poor women who call her fund for help, most of them black, remain disenfranchised.

To help empower their grantees, the fund invites them to join a "leadership group" and assist others. The leaders wear brown T-shirts that proclaim in sky-blue letters, "I Had an Abortion."

"No more behind the doors, doing secret knocks," Alcaraz said. "We're not going to be shamed."

Alcaraz, a seasoned activist, says underprivileged women are not being heard.

"You don't see poor black women talking about abortion in public," she said. "You don't see them asking, 'Why is it they don't want me to have an abortion but they're not doing anything to help me with work or child care?'"

So the fund is starting a talk show on community-access cable TV.

"We need to bring them in, train them and send them out to talk to politicians," Alcaraz said. "We get 60 to 70 calls a week because some old men are making decisions on young, poor women's bodies."

Taneisha Gillespie, 21, is a member of the leadership group. She's grateful the fund helped her out when she got pregnant last year.

"I was very sick," she said. "I have a 4-year-old boy, and I didn't want to be a single parent again."

But she's equally grateful to be brought into the group.

"I've never been part of anything before," said Gillespie, who works in a call center and hopes to go to college. She's looking forward to helping others, she said, adding, "I'd invite young women who are afraid or ashamed and let them know they're not alone."

Nicole Goss, 21, a concessionaire at Midway Airport, said she became part of the leadership group because "I want to help get the word out -- abortion is not a bad thing."

The Chicago Abortion Fund, financed by gifts from individuals and non-profits like the Chicago Foundation for Women, gave out more than $50,000 in the last fiscal year to 159 women; $63,000 is budgeted for the current year.

Nationally, the scope of such efforts varies. Some, such as Haven in New York, have dozens of staff and volunteers running a highly organized operation. Others, such as Evelyn Griesse in Sioux Falls, S.D., work solo.

Alcaraz and Ortiz operate out of a windowless Loop office not much bigger than a closet.

The room contains a desk occupied by a computer and printer, a desk chair, a folding chair and four filing cabinets. The walls are decorated with newspaper clippings, a calendar from a roller derby team, and a 4-by-6 photo of a toddler with big brown eyes and a bigger smile -- the son of a staffer.

Ortiz, the fund's client services coordinator, sits at the computer for two hours every Monday afternoon, taking calls. The rest of the week, callers to the hot line (312-663-0338) hear a recorded message detailing other sources of funding and advising them to call back.

Abortion opponents say such efforts are misguided.

Organizations like the Chicago Abortion Fund "do a disservice to some of the most vulnerable members of our community," said Sue Barrett, board chairwoman of Chicago's Aid for Women, a pregnancy center affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. "Money and time would be better spent on life-affirming choices that don't pit mothers against their unborn children."

Alcaraz said her group has not been harassed or picketed, but they're careful not to publicize their address.

The founder of Jane, Heather Booth, would approve of what Alcaraz and Ortiz are doing.

It's not necessary to do things that are risky or illegal to effect change, said Booth, 62, who directs the health care reform campaign of the AFL-CIO.

She said she believes activism is worthwhile if it improves people's lives, gives them a sense of their own power and holds those in power more accountable.

"People need to know they can make things better if they work for it."