On Tuesday, May 14, lawmakers in Alabama voted to approve Alabama House Bill 314, which would effectively ban abortion in the state by restricting doctors’s ability to perform the service and threatening them with felony sentences up to 99 years in prison. Governor Kay Ivey signed the bill on May 15. While the bill has not yet gone into effect (and will almost certainly be challenged in court and blocked), people across the country are rightfully worried about the fervor with which conservative lawmakers are pushing anti-choice laws through the courts, and what that could mean for Roe v. Wade.
In addition to voicing their dissent on social media, people have mobilized to support the groups working to protect reproductive rights across the country. One such group is the Yellowhammer Fund, which works to help those without the means to fund their own appointments. Sports fans, politicians, and everyday people have all signal-boosted Yellowhammer's call and chipped in record amounts. But in many ways, the fight is far from over.
MTV News spoke with Helmi Henkin, a recent college graduate and the treasurer and vice president of public outreach at Yellowhammer Fund, who took the call while volunteering at one of the three abortion clinics in the state. Here, she talks about being on the frontlines in Alabama, how the Fund plans to use the donations, and how social media is helping change the narrative for one of the most stigmatized medical procedures.
MTV News: I want to start by asking you about the Yellowhammer Fund’s current Twitter display name, because it says that it you can still get an abortion in Alabama (in all caps, no less). Have you seen a lot of people who are worried they won't receive treatment?
Helmi Henkin: Oh, yeah. Every single clinic has gotten calls of support from people around the country, asking how they can help or donate, or just thanking them for what they do. But then there are people who ask if abortion is still legal, asking if their appointments are canceled, because there is a lot of misinformation about this bill and what the passage of it entails.
So it's important to remember, recognize, and acknowledge that abortion is still legal in Alabama. This law will not go into effect for six months, and in those six months the ACLU and Planned Parenthood have promised to sue, and the bill will probably get blocked. There is so much that people can do to promote abortion access in states all over the country, because these kinds of trap laws are not an Alabama-specific problem.
MTV News: What can you tell me about the work you do with the Yellowhammer Fund?
Henkin: The Yellowhammer Fund was started by the West Alabama Clinic Defenders. Basically what we are here to do is to keep the clinics safe and open, and we walk people to and from their cars to protect them from harassment from the anti-choice protestors. We provide emotional support to people sometimes because being screamed at is an understandably traumatic experience.
Abortion funding is our primary aim right now but overall we operate from a reproductive justice lens. Reproductive justice is essentially fueling the right to bodily autonomy and the if, when, and how to parent through the lens of the intersectional oppressive systems that prevent people from fully exercising those rights. Our goal is to help people in Alabama overcome the various financial and logistical barriers that they face in trying to access abortions, and then also trying to dismantle those barriers, so we do a lot of fundraising and networking. There are organizations all over the state and country, and we build coalition with them.
We've also been funding people since January 1, 2018. Our funding has also been able to increase its scope to provide emergency contraception to people for free, and we are opening reproductive justice centers in response to crisis pregnancy centers, which say they offer all this support to parents and pregnant people but don't. Our centers will provide diapers, condoms, birth control, whatever supplies people need to lead healthy lives and raise healthy families.
MTV News: The near-total ban in Alabama was not decided on or signed overnight. What were some of the other obstacles you’ve faced while doing this work?
Henkin: It was not surprising at all this ban passed. The Pro-Life Coalition of Alabama has been talking about this ban for a long time and this is just one of many abortion restrictions that have been introduced.
Alabama already has a 48-hour waiting period and we only have three clinics left in the state. People have to come to the clinic, get the state-mandated counseling that is also targeted at dissuading them from having an abortion, go home and think about it. Most people wait more than 48 hours; they can't just take multiple days off work in a row, so that's two days that you have to find reliable transportation, housing, child care, in addition to having to pay for the procedure often out of pocket because Medicaid isn't allowed to cover it, and most private insurances don't.
There's an outright attack on abortion access all over the country and part of this is due to anti-abortion groups and legislators feeling empowered by the Trump administration. They feel like they have a shot at getting these laws to make it to the Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade. The sponsor in the Alabama House of Representatives who introduced HB-314 literally said, "This is not the right bill for Alabama but we need it to make it to the Supreme Court." There are already 14 other cases in the pipeline that could go to the Supreme Court and overturn Roe, but every state is in a race to be the first.
MTV News: Were you in any way surprised by reactions on social media against the bill, and also specifically in support of the fund?
Henkin: First and foremost, the support we've received both monetarily and through messages has been overwhelming and unprecedented. I think the support is also bringing awareness to people who maybe live in states where they feel like abortion access is more protected, or they haven't really even had to think about the landscape of abortion access until something like this happened.
This is not the first time that an abortion restriction has come up in Alabama since our fund has existed. In November, Alabama passed Amendment 2, which says if Roe is overturned, abortion will be completely banned without exceptions. After that, there was an uptick in funding, but this is a spike in fundraising like we have never, ever, ever seen before.
It's an opportunity to lift up other abortion funds and reproductive justice organizations all over the country. The Gateway Women's Access fund in Missouri is going to need a whole lot of support, and in Georgia there has been a whole coalition of groups that are working against HB-481 for months, including but not limited to Sister Song, ARC Southeast, and URGE.
Solidarity is really important. We’re working in partnership with other funds to get somebody to their appointment and to get their procedure covered. It's a really pivotal moment for people wanting to get involved in the fight for abortion access in general.
MTV News: With regards to accessibility and resources, among other things, abortion is also a matter of those who can simply afford it. Llaws like this one can cement the barriers placed upon marginalized people in particular – including poor people, Black women, and other women of color, who have historically rarely been able to even access abortion. How do you view this fight in terms of its intersectionality?
Henkin: This abortion ban and all abortion restrictions disproportionately impact low-income people of color, and Black people. And not only women get abortions, which is something they're also trying to bring into the mainstream conversation. When people talk about women's rights, there are these queer, trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary people who face just an extra set of barriers because of being left out of the conversation and also because of the threat of violence that could prevent them going to clinics like this.
There are a lot of people saying, anyone in Alabama should move if they can, and that's just a really irresponsible, ignorant, and privileged point of view to have. Instead of boycotting Alabama or boycotting other states where these bans arise, it's a much better use of time and energy to uplift the organizations that have been doing the work for years to help the people and communities most impacted by these abortion restrictions get the care and resources they need to make the best decisions for their lives, families, and communities.
It takes all of us, and I encourage people not to re-invent the wheel. Abortion funds have been around for ages and we're not going to go away. People can go to postroehandbook.com, where [writer and activist] Robin Marty has this map with all the reproductive justice-related organizations. People can go to abortionfunds.org/need-abortion and find their local fund, and I really encourage people to reach out to these organizations if they want to get involved and see what kind of support they need.
MTV News: Does Yellowhammer know how you will use the influx of funds that have been raised in the past few days?
Henkin: We are 100 percent volunteer-led, so anyone donating can rest assured that their money is going to go directly to helping people in Alabama access abortions. A lot of it is going to go toward our abortion funding and our practical support that we already do. We're also going to use some of it to open up and stock more reproductive justice centers. And we have other initiatives and projects that we've dreamed about starting and enacting but now we potentially have the ability to make a reality.
When Amendment 2 passed, I cried for two days straight, even though I knew it was going to happen. I just was filled with so much frustration and sadness for the people who it would impact the most, and fear about what would come next. I do not want to understate how tremendously horrid and harmful this ban is for the people of Alabama, but in the past day I have just been filled with so much gratitude and joy at the outpouring of support that we've gotten from people that believe in our ability to do good in the world.
MTV News: Everyone I've been talking to has been just beaten down by the prospect of what's happening and also what could be looming around the corner. Obviously people are afraid of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and it seems so hard to find those pockets of hope.
Henkin: I definitely agree and identify with these people who are feeling super tired from fighting this constant uphill battle. When you're involved in abortion access in Alabama or these other extremely access-hostile states, there aren't too many wins, so you just gotta find the joy and the hope in the situation you have.
There are a lot of people who think, “Abortion is such a contentious issue and it really shouldn't be talked about,” or “Abortion should be legal but only in certain situations.” But in reality, abortion is a public good, and should be free, safe, and legal without apology so that more people are able to exercise that right to bodily autonomy.
MTV News: Between the #YouKnowMe and #ShoutYourAbortion hashtags and social media broadly, it feels like a lot of people are actively debunking propaganda against a medical procedure. They're also talking more openly about their experiences without stigma. How has it been to see that shift in the cultural narrative surrounding reproductive autonomy?
Henkin: I think shifting the narrative is imperative in order for us to fight and beat these restrictions. Everyone loves someone who had an abortion, and that's just facts. Statistically, one in four people who are able to be pregnant have had an abortion, so I think it's really powerful for people to share their stories.
It's also important that people shouldn’t have to share a trauma to justify a medical procedure. But with more people sharing their abortion story, it just pushes home the point that all people who have abortions deserve compassion and non-judgment. We see over and over and over again that the hardest thing about it is having to navigate these tremendous logistical and financial barriers. Uplifting this narrative that abortion is normal I think also allows for increased focus on these barriers and why these barriers are problematic.
MTV News: A lot of people also may not realize the extent to which reproductive freedoms are being attacked. In Ohio, lawmakers are trying to conflate birth control with abortion. What should people know about accessing those very basic tools for reproductive autonomy and freedom?
Henkin: Our fund provides emergency contraception for free through the Powerhouse in Montgomery, through the Birmingham Free Store in Birmingham, and the clinic here in Tuscaloosa. We got a grant, so we have thousands of boxes of Plan B that we give to those who need or want it. We’re also trying to raise awareness that we have those resources, and hoping to stock the reproductive justice centers with condoms and birth control. The Women's Center offers birth control for $6 a pack.
The spectrum of reproductive health care and reproductive rights goes far beyond abortion. In addition to access to abortion, people should have access to birth control or be able to access OBGYNs. Half the counties in Alabama can't. We have a dire physician shortage in Alabama, and the state didn't expand Medicaid, so hospitals keep closing, especially in rural areas. Healthcare access in general is a reproductive justice issue because these people need healthcare access to lead healthy lives and raise healthy families.
This interview has been edited for length.