Californians Ready to Help People From Out of State Receive Abortion Care. State May Offer Money for Travel, Child Care

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An older woman with peach skin and white hair sits on a blue couch in her living room, with red and blue pillows. She has blue eyes and a slight smile. She's wearing a blue and white striped shirt with geometric embroidery in yellow, blue, and rust along the shoulders and arms.
 (April Dembosky/KQED)

The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, reversing Roe v. Wade, the court's five-decade-old decision that guaranteed a woman's right to obtain an abortion.

Twenty-six states are now working or planning to ban access to abortion following the Court’s ruling. As pregnant people look to travel from their home state to find abortion care, California medical clinics and volunteer networks are preparing to welcome them. For 1.4 million people, their closest abortion provider will now be in California, an almost 3,000% increase.

California lawmakers are working to establish an Abortion Practical Support Fund that would help out-of-state patients cover the logistical costs of traveling here for an abortion, including transportation, lodging, and childcare. Nonprofit groups, meanwhile, have been working to recruit and train volunteers who can help with rides and a place to stay.

Lee Mitchell wants to be one of those volunteers. After the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade leaked in May, Mitchell posted a message on Facebook, written in code:

“If you are a person who suddenly finds yourself with a need to go camping in another state friendly towards camping, just know that I will happily drive you, support you, and not talk about the camping trip to anyone ever.”

Mitchell lives in California, where abortion remains legal. She has a vision of picking women up at the airport in San Francisco, driving them to a local clinic for their abortion, then offering them a place to sleep on her couch and, really, a hand to hold. Something she did not have when she came to California for an abortion in 1970.

“I lived in Minneapolis. I looked and looked and back then, there were no sources,” she said. “So I had to pay the money to fly to California.”

It was one of three abortions Mitchell had before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 – one in California and two in Washington, DC. Mitchell is 75 now and can hardly believe this is happening again.

“I was just furious,” she said. “What I did was I fueled myself in looking for ways to help others.”

Goal: Quadruple the volunteer network

For months before the Supreme Court's decision, the California-based nonprofit Access Reproductive Justice has been getting calls from people who need help with travel from Texas, Arizona and even New Mexico – where abortion remains legal, but where clinics have been struggling to keep up with the needs of pregnant people traveling there from Texas. The nonprofit has already been helping hundreds of Californians every year with the logistical challenges of obtaining an abortion. In 2017, 40% of counties within the state had no clinics that provide abortions.

Since last fall, volunteer engagement coordinator Tricia Gray has been recruiting more volunteers to help with the anticipated surge in out-of-state patients.

“I am amazed at people coming together and supporting and showing up for people that they don't even know, in droves,” she said.

Gray has about 60 active volunteers now, but is working to bring that up to 250 statewide. Geographically, she’s focusing on neighborhoods near LAX, the main airport in Los Angeles, which they expect will be a hub for people from out of state. Demographically, she’s hoping to find volunteers who reflect their callers, who are mainly Black, people of color, and low income.

“Marginalized communities are always forced to be reactive, and we had to be proactive to support our callers,” Gray said.

With the pandemic, volunteers are still giving rides but home stays have been on pause; Gray hopes to resume them in the next month or so, when they can do so safely. For now, volunteers help book and pay for hotel rooms instead, which she says can cost $400 or $500, depending how many days a person needs to stay for the procedure.

Add to that the cost of a plane ticket, a babysitter and lost work hours, and the logistical costs alone of getting an abortion can surpass a couple thousand dollars. With the growing patient volume, volunteer networks and nonprofits can’t keep up.

Help with travel, child care, housing and friendship

Planned Parenthood’s 17 clinics in Northern California, for example, are expecting the number of patients seeking abortion care to triple, adding about 8,000 patients per year, says Gloria Martinez, senior director of operations. Every time a person from out of state makes an appointment, one of the clinic’s abortion navigators calls them to see if they need help with travel, she says. The navigators can arrange reimbursement for some expenses, but not for everyone who calls, and only up to $500 for each patient.

State lawmakers’ proposed Abortion Practical Support Fund would help by providing grants to nonprofits like Access Reproductive Justice or Planned Parenthood that can be used to help people, in state and out of state pay for logistical costs, including airfare, taxis, gas money, childcare or translation services. The grants can also be used to fund the work of abortion navigators or volunteer coordinators like Gray.

It’s an idea local anti-abortion activists oppose.

“We're calling it abortion tourism,” said Greg Burt, a Sacramento-based advocate with the California Family Council. “Come to California, go to the beach, get your abortion done and we'll pay for it, by the taxpayer.”

He says he wishes the state would put more money into removing the obstacles to having a child, rather than focusing on clearing the obstacles to abortion.

“Those incentives send a message that we value one more than the other,” Burt said.

Nearly 80 percent of Californians have said they’re opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade, according to an October poll. At a mall in San Francisco in June, KQED found a similar majority thought it was a good idea for the state to use their tax dollars to help people from other states come here for abortion care.

“I think it's okay, because what if a woman would get raped?” said Latasha Johnson, 44, referring to some state bans that would prohibit abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

“Setting aside taxpayer money is really important to ensure safe abortions for people,” said Caroline Fong, 19, a college student who, in the fall, will return to campus in Missouri, one of 13 states with a so-called trigger law set to automatically ban abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

“If we can help, we should,” said Howard Dixon, 60, adding that the government “wastes a lot of money anyway. So I would like to think that a little bit of my money is going towards a good cause.”

“I think that getting taxed a little extra would be worth it so that we can help those who need to get an abortion,” said Niveditha Anand, 18, who works in a boba shop.

One couple KQED surveyed did not like the idea.

“We do not agree with that,” said Joe Bacan, 44, a construction worker, speaking in Spanish. “We believe in protecting life.”

His wife, Claudia Sanchez, 49, added: “There are a lot of things we could invest in that would be better than that.”

The proposed fund, detailed in Senate Bill 1142, is one of 13 bills moving through the state legislature that are aimed at making California an abortion sanctuary state.

Lee Mitchell supports these efforts, but she wants to be even more involved, more hands on. She imagines what it might have been like when she was 20, if her future self had picked her up at the airport.

“I would have liked it. I think I probably would have opened up to the person, to the 75 year-old Lee,” she said. “I don't know if everybody would have. I would have.”

Seasoned advocates like Tricia Gray say the simple act of driving someone to the clinic, chatting about the traffic, or ordering them Thai food can be life-changing for the person seeking abortion care and for the volunteer.

“It's transformative because of the simplicity,” Gray said. “It's very revolutionary to just give someone a ride and say, ‘We got your back. We can't solve it all, but at least we can solve this.’”

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