Odile Schalit has booked many plane tickets and taxicabs for strangers, all for the purpose of helping them come to New York City to have abortions. She estimates that the average round-trip distance for those her organization has assisted is around 1,500 miles, and the farthest place from which someone traveled was Qatar.
“We’re talking about very expensive travel,” says Schalit. “These are folks having to travel not just from a major city to another major city, [but sometimes] from a small town in a rural area several hours away from a major hub.”
Schalit is the director of The Brigid Alliance, one of several independent groups operating in New York to help people afford the wide-ranging costs associated with having an abortion. Amid the conservative state-based effort to challenge Roe v. Wade, nonprofit funds and shifting local policy are playing a key role in positioning New York as a sanctuary state for egalitarian abortion care.
As abortions become more restricted and more expensive in states across the country, New York abortion providers say they’re seeing an increase in out-of-state residents seeking financial and logistical support. According to the New York Abortion Access Fund, or NYAAF, which helps patients pay for the procedure itself, 36 percent of the people it supported in 2017 were from a state other than New York, up from 31 percent in 2014.
“[Those laws] do affect us,” says Caitlin Van Horn, who sits on NYAAF’s board of directors. “We end up taking in a lot more clients from out of state.”
Abortion funds became especially relevant after Congress passed the Hyde Amendment in 1976, restricting the use of Medicaid to pay for the procedure. The National Network of Abortion Funds lists 77 abortion funds nationwide that help those who can’t afford services; it doesn’t count groups such as Brigid (which works with providers in D.C., Maryland, Colorado, and New Mexico, as well as New York) or the New York-based Haven Coalition that focus on paying for travel and logistics for residents living in rural areas or states with few remaining abortion clinics.
Schalit’s organization specifically focuses on services for people who are 16 weeks or further along in their pregnancies, who often have been delayed in getting abortions because of geographic or financial barriers. Brigid, she says, wanted to “be connected to people who needed to travel from upstate New York, surrounding states, other countries, to New York City for that care.”
Bus tickets, flights, hotel lodging, and childcare are only some of the costs associated with abortion care. Even in states where abortions are legally accessible, the procedure itself can remain prohibitively expensive, depending on a person’s health insurance, personal finances, and how far along they are in their pregnancy. The cost of earlier-term abortions can be anywhere from free to hundreds of dollars, while later-term abortions often reach into the thousands.
If demand increases, so do the funds’ operating costs. Van Horn says that the idea to use private donations to directly fund medical and travel costs surrounding abortions is only recently becoming a more palatable idea for many people.
“Saying ‘let’s directly give money to people who are trying to get an abortion and can’t’—that’s pretty radical,” says Van Horn.
That concept is gaining traction locally. This month, New York City became the first municipality in the country to fund nonprofits that connect people with abortion services after the City Council earmarked $250,000 in its upcoming budget. That funding is expected to go to NYAAF—Van Horn says it will double the organization’s operating costs and help provide abortions for more than 500 people a year.
The budget allocation is the latest political effort to secure and broaden abortion rights in the state. This year, New York state lawmakers passed the Reproductive Health Act, which protects abortion access in the case that the Supreme Court overturns Roe. The law also allows someone to receive an abortion in New York after 24 weeks of pregnancy if their life or health is at risk, or if the fetus is not viable—something that previously required an emergency trip out of state—while allowing more licensed health care providers to perform abortions, including Advanced Practice Clinicians, midwives, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants.
“Even as we’re watching this devastating race to the bottom of states like Alabama and Georgia and Ohio, we’re also seeing a number of states stepping up and really standing up for women and families,” says Andrea Miller, the president of The National Institute for Reproductive Health.
New York also allows eligible people to use state Medicaid to pay for abortions and does not have the restrictive rules implemented in other states, such as a mandatory waiting period, ultrasounds, or speeches from a physician.
“The number of barriers that are already in place, especially in some of these states, are quite severe,” says Miller.
About 926,200 abortions were performed in the U.S. in 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a historic low since the Roe decision in 1973. Advocates say that increased financial support for independent funds is one way that New York can increase abortion access. But they add that it’s also important to expand the number and reach of abortion providers in the state, something that is possible under the RHA, if newly eligible professionals in upstate and western New York are given the necessary training.
“Someone who lives in a town or in a county where there are no abortion providers has to wait longer, has to overcome more barriers,” says Schalit. The best way to provide more access to abortions, she says, is to train and license more people to provide them. “We need more, if New York is really going to be the haven state that it can be.”