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The “Auntie Network” Already Exists

Abortion funds provide an organizing framework for the current crisis.

Pro-choice activists shout slogans before the annual March for Life passes by the U.S. Supreme Court on January 22, 2015, in Washington, D.C. Anti-choice activists gathered in the nation's capital to mark the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

As Republicans escalate their efforts to criminalize abortion care, some social media users have called for the creation of a network that would offer assistance to pregnant people seeking abortions in states affected by the current onslaught of abortion bans and so-called heartbeat bills. Hashtags like #AuntieNetwork and #UndergroundRailroad2019 have emerged alongside a deluge of offers of lodging and other travel assistance for those in need — with most of these conversations occurring in the open, or in unsecure online environments like Facebook groups. But while the impulse behind these efforts is understandable, and even laudable, advocates who have long provided transportation assistance, lodging and financial help to people seeking abortions have expressed concerns about these unvetted attempts to create a network of assistance when a well-organized framework for this kind of organizing already exists.

Fears of abortion prohibition have ramped up in recent weeks, but there are numerous states where pregnant people have long been navigating post-Roe-like conditions due to prohibitive regulations. For years, abortion fund organizers have worked to help people affected by those regulations overcome geographical and financial barriers to care. While some abortion funds only provide financial assistance, others have long helped in removing other barriers to care by offering transportation assistance, lodging and other help to people seeking abortion care. Even in places where only financial help is available, a vetted, time-tested framework for more expansive organizing is already in place.

Yamani Hernandez is the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a network of organizations across the United States and three other countries that are funding abortion and building power to fight for cultural and political change. Hernandez was among those who took to Twitter in recent days to point out that abortion funds provide the framework that is needed for these efforts, saying “we need folks to join not reinvent.” Hernandez expanded upon her thoughts on Sunday in a conversation with Truthout’s Kelly Hayes about what people should know about abortion funds, the existing framework for assistance and how they can get involved.

Kelly Hayes: When most people hear the words “abortion fund,” they probably imagine an organization that simply collects donations and distributes abortion grants. What should people know about the breadth of the work that abortion fund organizers do?

Yamani Hernandez: Yes, the name abortion fund is in recognition of how much it costs to access an abortion and also realizing that when people are looking for help, the biggest thing they are looking for is money when they can’t use their insurance for abortion. Even if abortion funds just collect and redistribute funding for essential health care like abortion that the government won’t pay for, we think that’s revolutionary and enough! However, abortion funds don’t only pay for abortions. They pay for (or in many cases, provide) transportation, housing and child care. There is some overlap between clinic escorts and full-spectrum doulas as well. In addition to being experts to breaking down the financial and logistical barriers to care, they [abortion funds] also fight like hell to dismantle the cultural and political barriers to abortion access by organizing at the intersection between racial, economic and reproductive justice. We have an abortion funds 101 on our website that includes our political and cultural agenda. As a national organization supporting abortion funds, we support member abortion funds in four areas: leadership development, organizational development, network building and movement building.

With the continued passage of “heartbeat bills” and abortion bans fueling more interest in reproductive rights, there seem to be a lot of people who are eager to get involved for the first time. On Twitter, we’ve seen the emergence of the #AuntieNetwork and #UndergroundRailroad2019 hashtags, with people offering lodging or other assistance to folks who may need to travel to get an abortion. Some people have called these hashtags co-optive and problematic, but as you pointed out, they’re also sort of haphazardly trying to recreate something that already exists. Can you say more about that?

Sure. I’m thrilled that people are newly ready to take action; it’s amazing and hard to manufacture a culturally explosive moment. Self-organizing is beautiful. However, any time people have a “new” idea, it’s important to look up who might have done it before or is doing it now. There is no need to recreate any wheels here. There is a lot of wisdom of people who have been doing this work that could prevent folks from making harmful mistakes. More people activated is great, if they are trained and organized. People cite the work of the Jane Collective often, and anyone who has seen that documentary knows that Janes [who facilitated and provided illegal abortions through an underground network] were trained and vetted. Anyone seeking to support people in a rapidly criminalized landscape needs (at the very least) “know your rights” training, but we want people to have more. Our network has existed for nearly 30 years, but in the last three years, we have been doing deep work around values of anti-racism, intersectionality, compassion and trying to better align. I’ve read some folks tweet, “I have a couch, you can come to me,” but it’s just not that simple. Underground railroad is not an appropriate term to use in relationship to this work. It’s culturally appropriative and disrespectful to the legacy of escape from chattel slavery. As our consciousness has raised on anti-racism, we can do better and find other terms.

We are seeing a lot of passionate responses to these bills, and to be honest, a lot of panic. But for folks in organizations like yours, navigating post-Roe-like conditions is not new. Can you say a bit about what it’s been like for abortion fund organizers who are assisting people seeking care in states where abortion has already been regulated to the point of inaccessibility?

Yes, 90 percent of counties [in the U.S.] already don’t have an abortion provider, which means people have already had to travel across state lines before the six-week bans.

What should people who want to get involved and fight back against these laws be doing right now?

We want people to become a member of our network so that we can keep in touch and plug people in. Becoming a member is as low as $0. Donating is a powerful way to create change for grassroots organizations that have no staff and need more to support their callers.

A lot of people are angry and frightened right now — possibly more so than they ever have been with relation to their reproductive rights. What would you say to those folks right now?

At our summit last year, Mariame Kaba read us the Audre Lorde quote that “despair is a tool of your enemies.” I would say pause and take a deep breath and then lets organize each other around a common strategy so we can be in sync. Follow the people on the ground closest to the challenge.

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