How Illinois Became an Abortion-Rights Haven
On a recent Friday night, Janeen Lee sat at her round dining-room table in Chicago’s South Side, scanned her laptop, and chose a name from a short list. Lee is a volunteer for the Chicago Abortion Fund, which, since its founding, in 1985, has helped low-income people pay for abortions. She reached a woman, about eleven weeks pregnant, who had not scheduled an abortion because she didn’t have the four hundred and ninety dollars that a suburban clinic would charge. “I do have, like, around two hundred dollars,” the woman said, but with recent medical bills and two young children, including one who was chattering in the background, she was trying to stretch her cash. She could think of no one else to ask. “Nobody actually knows,” she said. “Only me. I’m alone in this.”
Lee, an educator by day, studied her computer, searching for a clinic in the caller’s area that could perform the procedure and enroll her in Medicaid, which in Illinois pays for the abortions of low-income patients. After discussing several options, they agreed that the woman would check with a particular clinic on Monday. Lee promised that if the enrollment did not come through, the fund would pay the full cost. She was glad to help, but after ending the call, she said of her work, “It definitely can wear on your soul.”
During the past year, a handful of C.A.F. volunteers, working mostly from home, have dispensed a hundred and thirty thousand dollars to people seeking abortions. This is more than double the previous year, and yet not nearly enough to meet a growing need. States are making abortion ever more difficult, leading more people to travel, often great distances, to clinics in Illinois. In recent months, more than fifty per cent of C.A.F. grantees have come from outside the state, the fund’s executive director, Megan Jeyifo, said. “Until abortion is free on demand, without apology, without stigma, without questions, we’re going to have to raise more money to help people, because what’s happening in surrounding states is going to keep going. I don’t see it changing.”
The election of Donald Trump and his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court triggered a strong wave of abortion-related legislation. The vast majority of media attention has focussed on Missouri, Ohio, Georgia, and Alabama, where Republicans have passed strict new laws, in some cases all but eliminating legal abortion. Less noticed is the move in the other direction by Democratic legislators and activists, in Illinois and elsewhere, including New York, Vermont, and Rhode Island, who are racing to strengthen access and protect against future Supreme Court rulings. As it happened, staff from Planned Parenthood offices across the country were holding a strategy session in Chicago on June 27, 2018, when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, clearing the way for Trump to appoint Kavanaugh. “We started looking state by state and asking where do we need to shore things up,” Brigid Leahy, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois lobbyist, said. The goal was to play offense and make sure that “Illinois was as strong on reproductive rights as we could possibly make it.”
On May 14th, the Alabama senate voted twenty-five to six to ban virtually all abortions, “to save the lives of millions of unborn children,” as one supporter put it. The law, which is being challenged in court, declares that performing an abortion, except when the life of the mother is in danger, is a felony punishable by ninety-nine years in prison. Less than a month later, the governor of Illinois, J. B. Pritzker, signed a bill that declares abortion to be a “fundamental right” and states that a “fertilized egg, embryo or fetus does not have independent rights.” The law formally removes the practice from the criminal code and eliminates regulations and restrictions that were on the books but had been enjoined by the courts. It also requires private insurance companies to cover abortion if they cover other expenses related to pregnancy. Pritzker called Illinois a “beacon of hope.” He said, “We’re going to be here for women if they have to be refugees from other states.”
Elizabeth Nash, who studies legislation for the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that favors abortion rights, told me that the new law is “incredibly important, not just because it provides all of these protections to the people of Illinois, but because it’s sending a signal to other states that they, too, can create these protections.” People in states where abortion is more highly stigmatized or difficult to obtain had already been travelling to Illinois for the procedure, according to recent tracking statistics. In 2017, about fifty-five hundred people from other states obtained abortions, compared with about three thousand two years earlier. Of the 2017 total, more than four thousand were from Indiana and Missouri, according to an Illinois health department spokesman. (This includes people living in Illinois who count those states as their official residence.) “As abortion access is diminished,” Nash said, “people look to go to other states to try to find services. In Illinois, that is already happening, and that would only increase if more abortion bans and restrictions go into effect.”
In Chicago, the path to abortion for dozens of low-income people each month passes through the Chicago Abortion Fund. Callers unable to afford an abortion might be given the fund’s telephone number by an abortion clinic or find it online. For more complex and expensive procedures, usually associated with later-term pregnancies, a number of funds in a national network will sometimes share costs. The callers are often racing the clock, anxious to proceed. As I listened in, with the permission of a caller who asked to remain anonymous, Janeen Lee talked with a young woman who said she couldn’t come up with four hundred and fifty dollars before her appointment. “I just started a new job,” she said. “And by then I’ll just have a paycheck, about a week’s worth, which isn’t much.” Lee helped her find a Planned Parenthood clinic that would enroll her in Medicaid, covering the procedure.
Lee and her colleagues do not ask the motivations or the reasoning of the people who call, but the woman, who lives in a suburb of Chicago, volunteered that she had two small children and was not “financially ready” to have another child. Lee offered to stay in touch and asked the caller if she’d like a link to six “affirmations,” which she described as “our way of also just trying to send you some love.” One reads, “Making a decision that I believe is best for me is powerful.” Another declares, “I am doing my best and that is enough.” The C.A.F. message ends this way: “You’re not alone. We’ve had abortions. We want to change the conversation around them. We support and love you.” The caller welcomed follow-up messages and offered thanks. “You’ve made this a whole lot less scary and stressful than it has to be,” she said. “And I really do appreciate that, because this is the first time I’ve ever had to go through this. I was freaking out.”
Leah Greenblum, who is thirty-one, is the executive director of Midwest Access Coalition, a Chicago nonprofit whose volunteers help people with the costs of travelling for an abortion, and often put them up in their homes. Demand is growing, as is the willingness of supporters to contribute. Greenblum told me that the coalition spent more than sixty thousand dollars in the first six months of this year, up from forty-three thousand in 2018, and that seventy per cent of its calls come from out of state.
“We’re talking with someone from Cincinnati, who says, ‘I’ve got to get to Chicago for my appointment and I’ve got to be in Chicago for three days,’ ” she explained. “Are they going to drive? Do they have gas money? Do they have directions? If you’re relying on someone for a ride—your cousin’s sister—how reliable are they? We have seen it time and again where the person doesn’t show up. If they’re not going to drive, do they take a bus? We pay for that ticket and talk with them about when to get to the bus station, when to leave the house. We walk through all of the micro steps, which are sometimes not obvious, especially to folks of varying education levels.”
Greenblum said that many of the callers are struggling to navigate the latest restrictions and added steps, such as waiting periods and medically unnecessary ultrasounds. Nor do all clinics in a given state provide abortions to the same point in a pregnancy or accept the same insurance. Although many of the strictest abortion laws remain blocked by the courts, she said, “We’re hearing from people who are confused about laws and whether abortion is still legal in their state. We’re hearing more anxiety than we have in years prior.” Then there is the emotional labor of the volunteers who staff the help lines. “We have some burnout,” Greenblum said.
Significant energy for the fight is coming from ordinary folks who are stepping off the sidelines to contribute time and money. C.A.F., Midwest Access Coalition, and Planned Parenthood of Illinois all report that the number of donors has increased since Trump’s election. One of those donors is Carrie Scott, a former private-school fund-raiser from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. On Election Night, 2016, she and her husband were preparing to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s victory, an unopened bottle of champagne at their side, when she saw the electoral map grow redder and redder. Her first thought was the Supreme Court and the open seat that would be Trump’s to fill. She pledged a monthly donation to Planned Parenthood.
I met Scott last month, at a fund-raising event for the Chicago Abortion Fund in the prosperous suburb of River Forest. The host, Deb Wellek Wolkstein, a fifty-two-year-old progressive activist, wore a black T-shirt from the National Network of Abortion Funds that read, in white letters, “Everyone loves someone who had an abortion.” More than seventy-five people, almost all women, showed up, and listened as two C.A.F. board members, Sekile Nzinga-Johnson and Chitra Panjabi, called for contributions to the fund. They also invited political activism to end an Illinois law that requires minors to notify a parent or adult relative or seek a judicial waiver before having an abortion. They raised two thousand six hundred and forty-eight dollars in one-time contributions that night and gained sustaining donors.
After the remarks by Nzinga-Johnson and Panjabi, Scott joined a half-dozen other women to write notes of encouragement to people they do not know. On brightly colored paper, she jotted heartfelt words, telling people seeking abortions that they are not alone, that they are brave, and that she believes in them. Scott is planning to volunteer as an escort at an abortion clinic, a decision prompted by the recent anti-abortion legislation. “The shock at the lack of humanity these states are showing. It’s worse than we ever thought it would be,” she said.
Annie Williams, too, felt inspired to act. The spark was a trip to Washington, in January, 2017, for the first Women’s March. Williams, who had recently retired from the Railroad Retirement Board, a federal agency, made her way to a Chicago chapter of the progressive Indivisible movement, and then to a march in favor of the Illinois measure known as H.B. 40, which allows low-income people to pay for abortions with Medicaid. To make her point, she acquired crimson cloaks and white bonnets for women who dressed up as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a book that affected her powerfully. She got the idea from watching footage of an abortion-rights protest in Texas and purchased the first two dozen costumes—twenty-five dollars for a cloak and about seven dollars for a bonnet—with money from a donor.
Calculating that a silent protest would be more distinctive than a rally of shouted slogans, she and her new comrades marched silently to an Illinois state office building in Chicago, a trek that was harder than it looked, Williams told me. “You have to keep your head down. You have to stay in this demeanor of oppression. You can’t look up and you can’t acknowledge people. That was actually the hardest part. It’s a weird feeling, because you feel invisible and exposed at the same time. Women would whisper to us, ‘Thank you sister.’ ” She went on, “To be honest, I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know tactics. I’ve never associated with these activist organizations. But I just feel called to it. When I read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ it affected me, because this is slavery. If abortion goes away, affluent women and white women will have no problem getting an abortion. It’s communities of color that will be affected the most, and that makes me angry. As a modern black woman, there is no way I’m going to let all this happen.”
The then governor Bruce Rauner, a moderate Republican, signed H.B. 40 in September, 2017. The following year, with Kavanaugh headed to the Supreme Court, local and national organizations, including Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, teamed up to draft the legislation that would become the Reproductive Health Act. And yet the bill stalled in committee for months. It was only when anti-abortion forces in other states started passing restrictive new laws that legislators recognized the urgency. “It was absolute fear,” Julie Lynn, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois spokesperson, said. On May 15th, the day after the Alabama senate passed its anti-abortion law, Illinois’s reproductive-rights forces held a long-planned lobbying event in Springfield to push the Democrats, who control the legislature, to act. To make a statement, Annie Williams recruited more than seventy women to dress as handmaids and converge on the capitol. They walked in formation, led by two prominent sponsors of the bill, Representative Kelly Cassidy and Senator Melinda Bush, both Democrats. The house passed the bill on May 28th. The senate followed on May 31th.
In a polarized landscape, where success on one side seems only to energize—or radicalize—the opposition, pro-life activists, naturally, have plans of their own. When I contacted Mary Kate Knorr, the executive director of Illinois Right to Life, she said that abortion opponents are “furious” about the Reproductive Health Act and its promise of a right to an abortion. “This law does not protect women. It protects the abortion industry,” she said. “The number of abortions in the state will continue to go up. Taxpayers will continue to pay for abortions in this state, and Illinois will become an even more lethal, abysmal state for women to live in.” Knorr said that she and her allies intend to step up their political organizing, “so that we can fix this mistake.” They aim to start this fall with an “apologetics tour,” which she describes as a series of training sessions throughout the state “to teach people how to talk about pro-life.”
On the Chicago Abortion Fund help line, the work goes on as the need goes up. Meghan Daniel, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois–Chicago, sat one afternoon in a borrowed conference room, working her way through a list of callers. She has been helping people navigate abortion since 2017, when she deepened her research into local organizing around reproductive justice. Beyond the callers’ need for funds, she answers all sorts of questions. “Can I bring my mom? Can I bring my kids? How do I get there? Is there parking? Will it hurt?” Between calls, she explained that, despite these “politically scary times,” such conversations, and the sense that her work is grounded in a longer history of activism on issues of reproductive justice, “move me away from panic.”