Friday, May 7, 2010

Federal funding for abortion?

We asked Amherst locals about their opinions regarding federal funding being used to support abortions. From students to professors to area business owners, we received a variety of feedback.

Listen to Director of Women, Gender and Sexuality studies Arlene Avakian here:

Watch and learn about on-campus involvement with different views of abortion and reproductive rights.

Read our research below:

Massachusetts is one of 17 states that mandates MassHealth, the state health insurance plan, pay for abortions. MassHealth is a public health insurance program for low- to middle- income Massachusetts residents. Under MassHealth Standard, a branch of MassHealth, the cost of abortions is fully covered as a standard medical procedure.

However, not all women who need assistance paying for abortions qualify for health insurance coverage. Even for those who do qualify, the application process can take too long for women approaching the 12 week mark for legally obtaining first term abortions. Women in these circumstances must turn elsewhere for assistance.

Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts

The Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts is a non-profit 24-hour answering service based in Amherst, MA. The Fund provides direct financial assistance and referrals to abortion clinics for women needing help paying for abortions in Hampshire, Hampden, Berkshire and Franklin counties. Calls to the service are returned within 48 hours.

“Our mission is to fund abortions for women without the resources to pay,” said Judith Plaskow, a board member for the Fund. “We have never turned away a woman from Massachusetts with no money.”

Plaskow said that there are a number of reasons why women call the Fund’s answering service for financial assistance. When possible, volunteers at the Fund help women apply for MassHealth. Women living in poverty and teenagers under the age of 20 are eligible for medical coverage of abortions if they are enrolled in MassHealth Standard.

“There are women who just lost their jobs and it takes too long to apply for Medicaid and they are too far along in their pregnancy to wait for approval (from the insurance company)”, said Plaskow. “Last week we had a woman call (seeking an abortion) who was raped, but she was undocumented and couldn’t go to the police.”

The Fund also provides assistance to documented immigrants who have been in the country for less than five years and are still ineligible for MassHealth coverage.

According to the Fund’s website,, women in Massachusetts who have federal insurance plans, including Native Americans covered by Indian Health Services, soldiers and their families, women incarcerated in federal prisons and federal employees are all ineligible for insurance coverage of abortion. Many private insurance companies also do not cover abortions.

In other cases, women call the Fund because they are in abusive relationships or family situations and cannot receive financial assistance elsewhere.

On average, Plaskow said the Fund provides women with about $200 to help offset the immediate cost of an abortion. Everywomen’s Center, a campus-based organization at the University of Massachusetts, states on its website that the Fund “provides zero-interest loans for safe legal abortion to women without financial resources or Medicaid.” Volunteers help women find ways to raise the rest of the money on their own. In each case, women can also determine how they plan to repay the loan from the Fund.

A first-term abortion costs $530 at the Western Massachusetts Health Care Center (Planned Parenthood) in Springfield, MA, the nearest site to UMass Amherst to get an abortion. Second-term abortions cost $2,500. According to Plaskow, loans that are provided by the Fund are given directly to the abortion clinic of a woman’s choosing and not to the woman.

In cases where women need more assistance, such as when they are seeking second term abortions, the Fund collaborates with other non-profit organizations that are part of the Fund’s parent organization, the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF).

According to the NNAF website, the 102 member organization collectively provides over $3 million in financial assistance to over 20,000 women nationwide each year. According to Plaskow, the western Massachusetts-based answering service currently receives between 15 and 20 calls per month, a number that she hopes to see increase following the launch of the Fund’s website last month. Plaskow said that the Fund is working to raise public awareness about its existence in hopes that women who live beyond the immediate Springfield area could benefit from the Fund.

“We talk a lot about how to let women know that we exist, we had women in their second trimester call us and say, ‘I wish I knew you were here, I would have come to you,” said Plaskow.


Located in the Carriage Shops in the center of Amherst, MA is the small local branch office of Birthright International, an organization whose mission is to provide an alternative to abortion.

The office, which is open three days a week, provides free counseling to women and girls who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. Birthright services are mainly aimed at helping low-income women find resources to afford to raise a child.

“I try to find out what (the woman’s) support system is like, if she has a support system, if she is willing or able to talk. I try to find what the reason for coming into the office is,” said Anne Zimmerman, director of the Amherst division. “Always in speaking with women, I try to let her lead.”

Birthright volunteers direct low-income women and girls who are planning to raise their baby on their own to federal programs that provide nutritional and transitional assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the food stamps program) and Women Infants and Children, (WIC). Low-income women living in the Pioneer Valley area can also apply to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts for additional food assistance.

Zimmerman said Birthright also provides maternity and baby clothes, and collaborates with other organizations to help provide larger items, such as furniture. If clients are interested in giving their baby up for adoption, Zimmerman said volunteers will provide them with referrals to adoption agencies.

According to the organization’s website, Birthright does not have any official political or religious affiliations and does not engage in any public debates concerning abortion. “If I wanted to get involved politically (in the abortion debate) I would have to leave Birthright,” said Zimmerman.

Although Zimmerman described Birthright as a pro-life organization, she said that volunteers did not try to discourage women from getting abortions. Instead, Zimmerman said she tried to determine whether an abortion was really what the woman wanted. She says that in the past, women have returned to the Birthright office after getting an abortion, saying that they have regretted their decision.

“If she is considering abortion, I ask her what her knowledge of the procedure is, has she been encouraged to get an abortion by her family or boyfriend. Sometimes I can tell that for her, abortion is the only answer,” said Zimmerman. “If she is very clear that she wants an abortion, there is no way I would step in her way.”

Zimmerman said that she believes few women and girls utilize the services provided by Birthright because of the easy and anonymous access to home pregnancy tests, as well as the ability to research different options for pregnancies online. However, Zimmerman said she felt that Birthright continues to serve an important role that women still rely on.

“I think no matter what decision a woman makes, she needs to talk,” said Zimmerman.

“A lot of the times, Birthright works like the best family would work. The most important thing is that we let her know that she is not alone and if she wants support, we will be there for her.”

A brief history of abortion funding in the United States

– Three years after the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortions in the United States, Congress passed a landmark amendment that greatly restricted public funding for the procedure.

The Hyde Amendment, which was passed by Congress in 1976, prevented Medicaid, the federal health care program for low-income Americans and legal aliens, from using federal money to subsidize abortions.

Under the funding restrictions imposed by the amendment, only women who were seeking abortions because of pregnancy due to rape and incest, or a life-threatening pregnancy would be eligible for Medicaid funded abortions. Before the passage of the Hyde Amendment, Medicaid covered abortions the same way that it covered other medical services, without specific restrictions.

– Soon after the Hyde Amendment was passed by Congress, the majority of states adopted similar laws restricting the use of state funds to subsidize abortions.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union website, Hawaii, Maryland, Washington and New York continue to provide voluntary insurance compensation for abortions, while 13 other states have ordered non-discriminatory state funding of abortions (AK, AZ, CA, CT, IL, MA, MN, MT, NJ, NM, OR, VT and WV.)

– Further restrictions on abortion availability come from the Balanced Budget Act (1997), that allowed health maintenance organizations (HMOs) to deny abortion coverage to Medicaid recipients, even in states where public funding for abortions is not restricted.

Women who have pre-existing medical conditions are also denied abortions unless the pregnancy becomes life-threatening, according to the American Civil Liberties Union website. They say the Hyde Amendment forces women to put their health at risk if they cannot afford to pay for an abortion.

Despite its power to restrict access to abortions, the Hyde Amendment is not a fixed law, it must be re-affirmed each year by Congress and it allows states to provide their own interpretations, leaving room for states to use their own money to fund abortions.

– Massachusetts is one of the 17 states whose state-funded health insurance plan covers abortions. According to the MassHealth website, the program provides payment for family planning services, including abortion, on a sliding fee scale for adolescents and low-income Massachusetts residents.

Residents who qualify for MassHealth coverage of family planning include individuals who are uninsured, and have an income that is less than or equal to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Residents under 20 years old are eligible regardless of their income, as are recipients of MassHealth Limited coverage.

Based on 2009 figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a single woman earning up to $32,490 would be eligible for MassHealth coverage if she sought an abortion.

– Abortion has become a hot-button issue again this year as the health care reform bill was being debated in the Senate. The last few days before the vote on the bill, remaining hold-outs against the bill were anti-abortion Democrats who believed that the current language of the bill would provide federal funding for abortions.

With passage of the bill hinging on a handful of votes from anti-abortion Democrats, veteran Senator, Dale Kirdee (D-MI) who is known for his anti-abortion views, said on the Senate floor that he believed that the health care reform bill upheld the restrictions on abortion funding outlined in the Hyde Amendment.

Shortly thereafter, President Obama sent out an executive order reaffirming support for the Hyde Amendment, even though during his presidential campaign, Obama said that he was opposed to the amendment.

While critics of Obama’s executive order argue that supporting the Hyde Amendment will further limit low-income women’s access to abortions, others say that the executive order does little to change the status quo and the restrictions on federal funding will remain the same as they have been for the past 34 years.

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