Guest columnist Carrie N. Baker: Safe and accessible abortion in western Massachusetts

  • People who support abortion rights protest in Seattle on July 10 against President Donald Trump and his choice of federal appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his second nominee to the Supreme Court. AP

Published: 2/18/2019 9:00:51 AM

In 1977, four years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, Rosie Jiménez had an illegal abortion. Jiménez was poor, and Congress had recently passed the Hyde Amendment restricting Medicaid funding for abortion. So Jiménez procured the only abortion she could afford. And she died. 

This was the first known time after Roe that a government restriction cost a woman her life. It wouldn’t be the last. 

Today, abortion access is under attack like at no other time since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade 46 years ago. Roe is threatened by Donald Trump’s appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Abortion rights are also threatened by the passage of state-level anti-abortion restrictions that clearly violate Roe v. Wade, like Mississippi’s fetal personhood law that passed in November and bills in states such as Ohio and Kentucky that would ban abortion into the first trimester. Eleven states have laws restricting insurance coverage of abortion in all private insurance plans, and 26 states restrict abortion coverage in plans offered through the insurance exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act. These restrictions are endangering our lives, and they fall disproportionately on low-income women, immigrant women, young women, and women of color — women like Rosie Jimenez. 

Despite these dangerous restrictions, people here in western Massachusetts have fought hard to keep abortion safe and accessible. Soon after the Hyde amendment went into effect, several women in western Massachusetts raised money for two women’s abortions, one paid for by a group of friends and another by an anonymous donor. This success led them to “pass it on” — to keep up the momentum by finding ways for other women to access their legal rights. Political activists, nurses and therapists, and western Massachusetts college students and faculty worked together to create the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts in 1987.

The fund started small — “kitchen-table style” — with one volunteer to answer the phone and another volunteer to keep track of the finances. It has grown steadily since then, now assisting hundreds of women each year, thanks to generous local donors, a governing board that raises funds and keeps an eye on political changes, and especially the 21 multigenerational volunteers, aged 19 to 76, who answer our phone and work with our clients to pay the cost of abortions. We also work with other grassroots organizations to keep the public informed about the need for affordable health care and to expand reproductive justice throughout the United States.

The Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts is one of the oldest and largest of the over 70 funds across the country helping people realize their constitutional right to abortion. Over the last 12 years, we have helped over 2,500 people to access abortion health care, pledging nearly $640,000 to support safe and legal abortion. Growing restrictions that delay abortion access have increased the need significantly. Just last year, the fund pledged almost $110,000 to clients needing assistance.

In his book “Creating Choice,” David P. Cline documents the long history of abortion rights activism in the Pioneer Valley through oral histories with survivors of illegal abortion, health care providers, clergy and lay abortion counselors, feminists, and connectors. Spurred by the death of Nancy Kierzek from an illegal abortion in September of 1970, people in the Valley stepped up and decided to do something about the issue. The fund continues this long tradition by helping to ensure that every person should be able to make their own decisions about when, whether, and how to create a family. 

Roe’s definition of abortion as a constitutionally protected right has stood for 46 years, but is threatened today more than ever. On Saturday, Feb. 23, the fund will hold its annual celebration of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade from 4-6 p.m. at the Red Barn at Hampshire College. Our speaker this year is scholar-activist Katie Watson, author of the award-winning book, “Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion.” She teaches bioethics, medical humanities, and constitutional law at Northwestern University and is the Bioethics Advisor to the Medical Council of Planned Parenthood and was formerly Senior Counsel for the Illinois ACLU’s Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project.   

We are fighting for safe and accessible abortion so that never again will another woman die like Rosie Jiménez. We hope you will join us.

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is a Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, co-president of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts, and a regular writer for Ms. magazine.

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