September 22, 2021

NM-based abortion fund twice as busy as pre-pandemic

Abortion rights supporters organized by the Center for Reproductive Rights rally as the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in June Medical Services v. Russo on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 in Washington.(Alyssa Schukar/Center for Reproductive Rights)

This month, New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an Albuquerque-based abortion fund, has helped 28 patients get an abortion, up from 15 in September 2020 when fears of COVID-19 prevented travel and 21 in September 2019.

And the month of September is not yet over, Brittany Defeo, New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice program manager, pointed out.

The increase in demand is due to the Texas six-week gestational abortion ban that went into effect at the beginning of the month. Defeo said the coalition is the last abortion fund most patients apply to because what the coalition offers – help with accommodations and trips to the airport, bus or train station – are services needed by the most economically perilous who need an abortion later in pregnancy which requires an overnight stay.

But because of the Texas law, the coalition is now seeing patients request their services even before 10 weeks of gestation because the patient needs to travel to New Mexico to take abortion medication. Mifepristone isthe first of the two-pill regimen for an abortion the patients take in the clinic, Defeo said. For the Texas’ patients safety, the coalition offers accommodations if the patient wants to spend the night to take the second pill, misoprostol, although it can be taken in the privacy of one’s own home.  

The coalition is one of a handful of abortion fund providers in New Mexico. Each fund differs in who they serve and what they offer, but they all participate in a national network of abortion fund providers whose larger goal is to help those in need get the abortion care services they seek.

Related: An abortion fund for Native people is more than just a fund

When Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director of the coalition, which is faith-based, talked to NM Political Report about the abortion patients her organization serves, she used words such as “love” and “trust.”

The coalition is a nonprofit that tries to fill the gap for those who do not have the financial ability to pay for travel costs often associated with abortion. Despite the fact that abortion is legal, it is still out of reach for many, especially those who are marginalized, reproductive health care experts have said. 

The coalition operates mostly with volunteers. Over the summer, the coalition began to prepare for the increase in patients coming from Texas in anticipation of how the six-week gestational ban would affect residents’ reproductive healthcare needs in that state.

Lamunyon Sanford said the coalition raised an additional $25,000 in expectation of the increased need in the coalition’s services. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the coalition pays for motel rooms rather than rely on hospitality hosts, as it did before the pandemic.

So many individuals have reached out to help with volunteering that the organization hasn’t had a chance to set up enough orientation meetings, Lamunyon Sanford said.

“It’s really been wonderful. It’s just a show of love and support from the New Mexico community,” she said.

Lamunyon Sanford, whose mother was an early volunteer nurse at the first Planned Parenthood clinic in New Mexico, became involved with the coalition as a phone bank volunteer herself through her Methodist church. She then became a volunteer board member, then a volunteer executive director in 1999 and now she heads the organization full time.

Lamunyon Sanford said faith groups in the early 1970s started the coalition to support the Roe v. Wade decision. The early founders thought their services would not be needed after a few years, she said.

Instead, the New Mexico chapter, which was founded in 1978, has grown from an all-volunteer organization to one with a paid staff of five, she said. 

She said another early foundation to the national coalition was a clergy consultation network that formed in 1969 to help women find a safe abortion provider when abortions were still illegal. Some of the early volunteers were women who pretended to need an abortion because it was the only way they could accurately vet a provider, Lamunyon Sanford said. She said the organization was powerful enough in its early days that it could negotiate a provider down on the cost to make an abortion more affordable.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexico abortion funds found themselves facing greater need because Texas shut down its abortion clinics the first month of the pandemic. Now abortion funds are again faced with needing to rise to a new challenge. Lamunyon Sanford said the coalition is meeting that challenge but the Texas ban has caused frustration and sadness, she said.

“We’ve heard from people unable to make the trip. Even before this it would not be unusual to have callers who had to reschedule or just don’t make it in spite of all the support we can provide,” she said.

She told one story of a patient in Texas who found herself, in the first week of September, six-and-a-half weeks pregnant. Because the Texas ban prohibited the patient from getting an abortion in Texas, the patient had to travel to Albuquerque to take the two pills, mifepristone and misoprostol.

Lamuyon Sanford said that one of the side effects of the Texas ban is that because of the “vigilantism” – anyone can sue individuals or organizations in Texas who “aid and abet” someone getting an abortion – “people are reluctant to say why they need time off,” she said.

“We’re very aware that there are people who just can’t get here,” she said.

When asked if she thought it might surprise some that an abortion fund is faith based, she said “people that use religion to deny access to abortion are a small but, unfortunately, loud minority.”

“The use of abortion as a political wedge issue is really where this comes from. The origins to opposition to abortion are really based in racism and was push back to the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the Supreme Court,” she said.

She added that Texas’ gestational ban is the “direct result” of 40 years of the political and religious right working together in “an intentionally well organized” way.

Lamunyon Sanford said she’s seen the anti-abortion community become more “emboldened” and more “desperate,” over the years. But the coalition, which includes volunteers who are both Protestant and Catholic, trains its volunteers to listen to people’s stories and make space for individuals.

“I think separation of church and state doesn’t mean that we leave our faith and values at the door of the Roundhouse,” she told NM Political Report. “That’s what motivates us to create a better world.”

She called watching the Texas Legislature debate the abortion ban “especially troubling” because the law’s supporters and sponsors “were motivated by their faith, or said they were motivated because of their faith. But this is just another example of religion being abused and misused to justify harm and discrimination.”

She said that religion is “about finding a way to love and care for one another, not harm one another.”