Abortion Access And Activism Remain Strong In Illinois

Megan Jeyifo, executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund
Megan Jeyifo, executive director of Chicago Abortion Fund, poses for a portrait at the organization's South Loop offices in downtown Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
Megan Jeyifo, executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund
Megan Jeyifo, executive director of Chicago Abortion Fund, poses for a portrait at the organization's South Loop offices in downtown Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News

Abortion Access And Activism Remain Strong In Illinois

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On a snowy Friday afternoon, as a CTA ‘L’ train roars by, Qudsiyyah Shariyf and Megan Jeyifo return calls in their small downtown Chicago office.

They speak with a 43-year-old mother, a teenage girl and a woman short on cash — all seeking help from the Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF), which offers financial, logistical and emotional support to people seeking abortion services. The hotline is open three days a week.

As Shariyf talks through logistics, a woman on the other end of the line explains why she is calling an organization in Illinois to help pay for an abortion.

“Because in Iowa, I’m not sure if you know we don’t really have a right to say we want an abortion,” said the woman, who explained that she was five weeks pregnant and had little money to pay for an abortion.

The woman is wrong. Abortion is legal in all 50 states. But Iowa briefly had the most restrictive abortion limit in the country — no abortions, if a fetal heartbeat is detected. Last year, an Iowa state judge struck down that law.

CAF committed $325 to help cover the woman’s costs to have an abortion in Illinois.

Women travel from all over the country to have abortions in Illinois. As neighboring states restrict abortion access, Illinois is seen as a haven that protects access. And that protection is largely due to the efforts of a strong and long-standing reproductive justice community in Illinois that has also worked to change the narrative on abortion rights.

The number of abortions for out-of-state residents has been on the rise in Illinois. In 2014, there were 2,970 such terminated pregnancies. In 2018, there were 5,668, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“The problem is that, in the states surrounding Illinois, you have mandatory counseling requirements. You have waiting periods. You have restrictions,” Jeyifo said. “If you have two appointments in Wisconsin, for instance, you have to see the same doctor.”

For some women outside of Illinois, even if they have access to care in their home state, “they’ll choose to come here because it’s quicker and less expensive,” Jeyifo said.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization, tracks state abortion laws. It found that, between 2011 and 2019, states enacted 483 new abortion restrictions. The most common — enacted by many states in the Midwest — are parental notification or consent requirements for minors, mandated counseling and mandated waiting periods before an abortion.

In Indiana, private insurance policies cover abortion only in cases of life endangerment, rape, incest or if the woman’s health is severely compromised, unless individuals purchase an optional rider at an additional cost. In Ohio, 93% of counties have no clinics that provide abortions. In Missouri, the waiting period is 72 hours.

Last year, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker signed a law that effectively keeps abortion legal in Illinois, even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. While most states ban Medicaid from paying for abortions through the Hyde Amendment, two years ago Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner overturned that in Illinois.

As Illinois became stronger and shored up access to care, CAF saw an uptick in out-of-state callers — from 15% of all callers to 55%.

For Jeyifo, the work of CAF is personal. She has a totebag that reads “F--- your abortion ban.”

“Part of my abortion experience that was so difficult is I had a nurse that said something horrible to me,” Jeyifo said when asked why she does this work. “Someone who gave care like this everyday and she still felt it was okay to say a really stigmatizing, demeaning thing to a 16-year-old girl who was alone like half-clothed on a table. And I think I’ve carried that throughout my whole life.”

“When I found out that abortion funds exist and that they affirm abortion care as healthcare, it was transformative for my own experience,” Jeyifo added.

Megan Jeyifo and Qudsiyyah Shariyf at Chicago Abortion Fund
Megan Jeyifo and Qudsiyyah Shariyf make phone calls to clients at the South Loop offices of the Chicago Abortion Fund on Feb. 19, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ News
And in a political climate where the U.S. Supreme Court is viewed by many as conservative-leaning and open to restricting access to abortions, CAF has seen an uptick in funding — leading to a 349% increase in the number of people it’s helped in just a year.

“Roe means nothing to people who don’t have money for their abortion or who have to take a three-hour bus ride and don’t have bus fare for their abortion. Or who live in communities where abortion is so stigmatized,” Jeyifo said.

This is the mentality of reproductive justice, which is a movement started here in Chicago back in 1994. Toni Bond and 11 black women coined the term during a pro-choice conference. The core principles are the right to have a child, the right not to have a child and the right to parent in a healthy environment.

“The beauty of the reproductive justice framework is the way that it looks at things much more expansively,” said Bond.

Bond, who now lives in California, was the first black woman to lead CAF.

“It’s more than just about physical access to an abortion. But it’s also about what are those other interlocking issues that make it a challenge for someone to get an abortion, particularly women of color, low-income women and young women,” Bond said.

Back in the 1990s, when Bond was doing her work, “keep abortion safe, legal and rare” was a popular Democratic tagline.

Today, in her downtown office, Illinois Planned Parenthood CEO Jennifer Welch wears a bright pink T-shirt with another message.

“One of the reasons why my T-shirt says ‘protect safe and legal abortion’ is because I don’t want to stigmatize a patient for choosing the medical care that they need,” Welch said. “We trust a woman or a patient to make their choices about when and whether to have children. Talking about abortion being ‘safe, legal and rare’ may perpetuate the stigma.”

Messaging is important for those invested in protecting abortion rights and, even as Illinois is regarded as a haven, activists still fight stigma.

Yamani Herndanez wears a shirt that reads “everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.”

It’s a membership shirt for the organzation she runs, National Network of Abortion Funds, the umbrella organization for groups like CAF. It’s also a reflection of how common abortion is today. Nearly 1 in every 4 women will have an abortion by the age of 45, according to a 2017 analysis by the Guttmacher Institute.

“We do political education with folks, teach them about reproductive justice, racial justice, economic justice. If you listen to anti-choice people, they’ll have you thinking that abortion is something that only people who hate children do and people who are irresponsible and we know from listening to people on hotlines that most of the people who have abortions are already parents,” Hernandez said.

Years ago, Hernandez led a youth program in Humboldt Park when she met a 14-year-old teen mom. Hernandez said the girl asked other youth to beat her up for $10. The girl was pregnant again, and she said her parents would kick her out. She said it was easier to explain getting beat up than to explain having an abortion.

Hernandez called a friend for help and that’s when she learned about CAF.

“That was a life-changing experience for me,” Hernandez said.

“I had an abortion at 19. I didn’t have any barriers to access,” Hernandez said. “But this really helped me understand about reproductive justice. And she was navigating her youth, housing and safety concerns.”

Hernandez said political education means astute communication and storytelling. And humanizing people.

“No matter how you feel about abortion, you do know someone who had an abortion and you probably love somebody who’s had an abortion, even if they didn’t tell you yet,” Hernandez said.

For the Illinois anti-abortion community, they, too say that want to use compassion when spreading their message.

“It is much harder to be pro-life than to be anything else in this country,” said Mary Kate Knorr, the executive director of Illinois Right to Life. For the pro-life community in Illinois, she said there’s one area left to defend: the parental notification law.

The law doesn’t require parental consent for minors. It requires that a healthcare provider notify an adult family member at least 48 hours prior to an abortion procedure — or get a pass from a judge to not notify an adult.

“Democrats in the state legislature want to appeal that law and that’s considered by the standards of Planned Parenthood … the last restriction on the books in the state,” Knorr said.

For Planned Parenthood and other advocates, yes, it is considered the last restriction on the books. And one they want to eliminate.

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.