By Lindsey Oliver

When I was 16 I had an abortion. It was both difficult to arrange and pay for. Yet this pivotal event resulted in a lifelong commitment to working towards a world with reproductive justice for everyone. The sad part isn’t that I had an abortion, but that there were so many barriers. Even more disheartening is that I know I am not the only person who lacks access to a safe and legal abortion.

My experience led me to volunteer at one of Richmond’s most targeted abortion clinics. I helped protect patients from the aggressive and sometimes violent harassment they often receive from protestors when entering or exiting the clinic. One day someone walking by gave us $20 and encouraged us all to take ourselves out for pizza. But we had just witnessed several women leaving the clinic without getting their abortions because they couldn't afford the procedure. So we took that $20 and helped one woman. The experience helping just that one woman made me realize how many more need help. So at age 19 I co-founded the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project. The fund primarily helps women who cannot afford to pay for their abortions, but it also provides education and advocacy in our city. Abortion funds like ours were set up in 41 states in order to ensure that poor women were able to have the same access to reproductive choice as everyone else.

The women we fund are poor -- many lack access to education, good jobs and health care for themselves and their children. Most often they are young, and are already mothers. They are always in a state of desperation. These women need and deserve help the most. I am often asked how these women are allowed to fall through the cracks. One of the many answers to that question is Henry Hyde, the man most directly responsible for denying millions of women’s access to an abortion just because they are poor.

After the Roe v. Wade decision decriminalized abortion in 1973, Medicaid -- the national system that offers financial support for medical care to low-income Americans -- covered abortion care without restriction. But in 1976, Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois introduced and passed an amendment to the federal budget that limited federal funding for abortion care. The Hyde Amendment has been passed with the federal budget every single year since.

Although 15 states use their own funds to cover abortions under many circumstances, Virginia is not one of them. This leaves the Commonwealth’s poorest women without resources to determine the size and shape of their own families. In the absence of public funding, abortion funds pick up what slack they can. Last year, abortion funds across the country, including RRFP, raised and disbursed more than $3 million to assist 21,000 women in paying for their abortions.

However, grassroots abortion funds like ours can only help a fraction of all women who need it. We will never be able to be able to take the place of public funding. That is why we need to restore Medicaid funding for abortion.

The National Network of Abortion Funds, an organization composed of 103 grassroots abortion funds in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and overseas, is now taking on the Hyde Amendment through the “Hyde-30 Years is Enough!” campaign. The 80+ organizational members of the Hyde Campaign are working to repeal the Hyde Amendment and restore dignity to poor women.

For women who are struggling to make ends meet and who do not have insurance that covers abortion care, the legal right to have an abortion does not guarantee access. The restrictions imposed by the Hyde Amendment unfairly jeopardize the health and well-being of low-income women and their families. Women who do not have the ability to pay for abortion services may resort to attempting a self-induced abortion or obtaining unsafe, illegal abortions from untrained practitioners. Even though the Hyde Amendment has exceptions for rape, incest and life endangerment, Medicaid virtually never pays even for abortions that meet those exemptions.

As the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project celebrates our fifth year as a nonprofit, I feel the urge to take a moment to reflect on the hundreds of women’s lives we have directly impacted. However, the need for the health services we support calls for more action. It’s time to make a full range of reproductive health services available to all Virginia women.
Oliver is the cofounder of Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project. At 25 years old, she is the youngest person on the board of the National Network of Abortion Funds.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Virginia Forum. 5/09