By Sarah Wilhelm

While Roe v Wade ensures that abortion is legal in every state, the reality of abortion access today is increasingly dependent upon a woman’s socioeconomic status and geographic location. The average cost of an abortion for a woman up to 12 weeks pregnant is $450 to $600 in the Northwest region, and costs increase markedly after 12 weeks.

The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, ended the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion, except when the woman’s life would be endangered by a full-term pregnancy, or in cases of rape or incest. As the debate about the direction of health care reform takes off, the Obama administration should recognize the critical importance of repealing this fundamental barrier to women’s access to comprehensive health care.

Fortunately, Washington uses its own funds to cover the cost of abortion procedures for women who qualify for Medicaid. However, women living in neighboring states of Idaho and Oregon have limited government assistance for the cost of their procedures.

Oregon does cover abortion procedures through its Oregon Health Plan (OHP) program; however, the program has seen significant budget cuts over the past year making it difficult for women to receive OHP funding for abortion in a timely manner.

Idaho does not use state funds to cover abortion, except in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest. Idaho even bans private insurance from covering abortion (except in cases of life endangerment) without payment of an additional premium.

Women in rural Washington, Oregon, and much of Idaho also experience limited access to abortion providers. In fact, it is not possible to get an abortion past 14 weeks in the state of Idaho. These women are faced with the added time and expense of travel to get an abortion.

And this was before the economic crisis hit.

With rising unemployment and cuts in social services added to the already challenging landscape of abortion access in the Pacific Northwest, increasing numbers of women experiencing an unintended pregnancy are finding themselves in an economic crisis of their own.

Between 1994 and 2001, the rate of unintended pregnancy increased by 29 percent among U.S. women whose income was below the poverty line, while it decreased 20 percent among women with incomes at least twice the federal poverty level.

During this time, state level restrictions to abortion access, from dwindling numbers of abortion providers particularly in rural areas, to state budget shortfalls leading to cuts in Medicaid funding (as in the case of Oregon), have left many poor women with few options when faced with an unintended pregnancy.

Private abortion funds seek to fill some of the gaps left by inadequate state laws and funding by providing women with some or all of the funds needed to obtain an abortion.

The Community Abortion Information and Resource (CAIR) Project is an all-volunteer regional organization that provides abortion funding and hotline support to women in Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Oregon. The fund empowers women in need to be able to afford abortions and other associated costs, such as travel and childcare. In 2007, the CAIR Project gave $25,700 to women in need -- leveraging the $171,500 the women were able to contribute to the cost of their procedures themselves.

Since 1999, the CAIR Project has worked tirelessly to break down financial barriers to abortion and improve reproductive health care access for all women. As the gap between rich and poor in our country continues to widen, each year we find that the number of women who require our services increases.

Much of this increased need is a result of a dramatic rise in the number of women calling us from Oregon. In 2005, only 27 percent of our clients were from Oregon; but in 2007, Oregon women made up 48 percent of the women we serve. The drastic cuts to Oregon’s Medicaid funding have led to virtually no new Medicaid enrollments and indefinite processing times for applications. As these women wait, the cost of their abortion and their financial stress rise. Compounding the financial difficulty facing Oregon’s women, the state’s unemployment rate soared above the national average to 12 percent in April 2009.

As unemployment continues to rise while social services are being slashed in our region, we expect the need for our services will continue to increase. While it is critical that we continue to engage in legal and political advocacy to improve state and national policies around abortion and reproductive health, we must also offer support to those who are in need of help now and can’t wait.
Wilhelm is a board member of Community Abortion Information and Resource (CAIR) Project. The CAIR Project seeks to help meet the needs of these women while also drawing attention to the policies and systems that have left them unable to afford the choice that Roe v Wade assures them.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Washington Forum. 6/09


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