What Philanthropy Must Do to Protect Reproductive Rights

Staff of the National Abortion Federation joined Kathy LeMay to talk about the problems facing abortion providers in today’s increasingly hostile environment.

With the fight to keep abortion safe and legal increasingly under threat, fundraising expert Kathy LeMay of Raising Change recently hosted a webinar with leaders from the National Abortion Federation. The goal of the webinar was to help philanthropists take action to support the abortion providers, during increasingly hostile times for providing these vital services.

Kathy introduced the Very Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, former President of the Episcopal Divinity School and Interim President and CEO of the National Abortion Federation. (Longtime CEO of NAF, Vicki Saporta, who put in 23 years at the helm of NAF, announced her retirement this past year.)

Ragsdale has an extended tenure in abortion rights, particularly in the religious realm. She served for 17 years, 9 as chair, on the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights. Despite her prior experience, she said coming on as NAF’s Interim CEO has been eye-opening. “Since I arrived, I have been blown away,” said Ragsdale, referring to the difficulties that abortion providers are experiencing in the current hostile climate, with a President who regularly engages in incendiary rhetoric about the topic. “What gets left out of the discussion is that the legal right to abortion is meaningless without providers willing to provide that care,” said Ragsdale.

Ragsdale made her point by sharing some startling statistics about who provides abortion in the U.S., and what little support most of these providers have. “Planned Parenthood is well known, but the majority of care is provided in independent abortion clinics, community-based clinics. Sixty percent of abortions are provided in independent clinics.”

Ragsdale said this model of service provision grew out of the earlier years after Roe V. Wade, where progressive (mostly women) set up clinics that were independent and free-standing. This was a great instance of feminists working to support women and we applaud it, but the unintended consequence of this model, said Ragsdale, is that it makes these clinics vulnerable to being marginalized.

“Marginalization of providers means, among other things, that there are a lack of training places for abortion providers,” said Ragsdale. “NAF fills this void by providing trainings and research across the country, and provide a sense of community to talk proudly about the work in a safe place, stigma-free.”

Abortion providers also need to get Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits to maintain licensing. “Unlike other specialties, that CME is hard to come by for abortion providers,” said Ragsdale. “NAF is the leading provider of CME on abortion online and in the community.”

NAF visits member clinics regularly, providing technical assistance and hands-on training, including ultrasound trainings that teach how to do a more comprehensive scan. Ragsdale said a trainee provided feedback recently that the ultrasound training she got through NAF saved a life, when she was able to identify an ectopic pregnancy that needed to be treated immediately.

NAF also helps providers deal with the safety and security issues that surround their work. With 11 murders and 42 attempted murders of providers, and an exploding rate of clinic invasions and obstructions from 2016 to 2017, Ragsdale described how NAF helps clinics access and set up security systems. “There is nowhere else for clinics to get this kind of expert technical assistance.”

Ragsdale also painted the picture of the downsizing of access, with 50 abortion clinics closing since 2016 and some Planned Parenthood affiliates merging. “Abortion clinics are closing and some providers can’t retire as there’s nobody to continue this work,” said Ragsdale. She talked about providers in their 80s who can’t retire because there is no one to take their place. “Many independent providers do not have a succession plan,” said Ragsdale.

There are also five states that have only one abortion providing clinic: Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Twenty-two states are at risk to lose abortion access if Roe falls, and ninety percent of counties do not have an abortion provider, said Ragsdale, meaning that many women have to travel to get the care they need.

Dr. Alice Mark, Medical Director for NAF, also joined the webinar and talked about the important role that community support that volunteers play in helping abortion providers. NAF functions as a community space for many providers who are isolated geographically or who are facing a hostile culture.  “Coming to us, they can talk and grow professionally,” she said. Dr. Mark also discussed the importance of sharing personal stories of health and safety for women who needed abortions as a way to raise awareness about the work that providers do. “Keep showing up for women,” she said.

“In some areas, it’s already a post-Roe world,” said Ragsdale. With poverty, race, and geography already isolating many women from abortion services, Ragsdale encouraged philanthropists to speak out about the need for abortion services, in order to change the culture and “help providers to joyfully enter into their work.” Ragsdale also said the field is developing creative ways to provide services and may be able to use telemedicine to provide support and certain levels of patient care, particularly to do some of the preliminary work with patients. NAF is working on how to navigate laws and regulations around those services. Ragsdale added that another creative solution could come from primary care physicians expanding their practices to provide abortion access.

To learn more about NAF, visit the website here. 

Link to NAF Webinar with Kathy LeMay

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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work in Cranston, Rhode Island, and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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