Meet The Women Doing The Hard Work In Mississippi's Abortion Desert
For low-income Americans, an unintended pregnancy can confront you with seemingly insurmountable tolls. You can choose to have an abortion, which, for many people in states with vastly restricted reproductive rights, is an overwhelming financial burden on its own, or shoulder the cost of carrying a pregnancy to term, and potentially have a child to feed and raise for 18 years or longer. Adoption as an alternative to abortion is a myth more than reality: Beyond the fact that it overlooks many pregnant people’s health-related reasons to seek an abortion, most find adoption to be more emotionally damaging than abortion. What is a person in crisis supposed to do?
In many ways, the paradox constitutes one of the most hypocritical aspects of the anti-choice movement — forcing people to give birth and then providing no support for the child once it is born. After all, if lawmakers are going to make it financially impossible for an entire group of people to receive an abortion, and then force them to give birth knowing they lack the resources, they should continue to show up after birth and make sure the child and parent have what they need for a healthy life.
The Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund is trying to fix that.
Mississippi is known as an abortion desert, one of 27 regions in the U.S. in which people have to travel more than 100 miles to get to an abortion clinic. If you’re poor and work multiple jobs and lack transportation, this geographic barrenness alone could be the definitive factor in preventing your access to a safe physician-administered abortion. On top of that, Mississippi has the highest percentage of Black Americans, and Black and Latinx women are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies than white women due to gaps in access to contraception and healthcare (gaps exacerbated by America’s history of racial discrimination). There’s also the financial considerations: Generally, an abortion procedure costs $500, and due to the Hyde Amendment, Medicaid funds in Mississippi can’t be used for abortion in cases other than rape, incest, or threat to life.
Funded by mostly grassroots individual donors, the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund is the only unlimited reproductive fund in Mississippi, and provides direct funding to three or four pregnant clients seeking abortions per month, as well as material donations like diapers, food, childcare, Plan B, feminine products, toys, doulas and the warehouse of items needed for a parent to raise their family. In short, it is a holistic view of what reproductive healthcare could look like.
“They’re small pieces to a lot of people but matters like that are barriers. And if it matters to them it matters to us,” said Laurie Bertram-Roberts, who co-founded the fund.
As a mother of seven working multiple low-income jobs, Bertram-Roberts started the fund because she felt a gap in her state’s reproductive healthcare ecosystem, one in which the needs of marginalized populations were overlooked to prioritize protection for reproductive laws. But to poor women in Mississippi, where legislators recently passed a bill attempting to ban abortions after six weeks, a legal statute is not necessarily their primary concern; even before such laws, abortion can be nearly impossible for many women, and especially poor Black women, to afford and access.
The fund serves to help people who have fallen through the cracks of the reproductive rights debate. To address the myriad expenses required to make it to an abortion in Mississippi, the fund has helped pay for needs as varied as dog sitters to meals to motel rooms for out-of-towners who need a place to spend the state-mandated 24 hours between in-clinic counseling and the procedure (a requirement many people believe to be an undue burden, as defined by Planned Parenthood v. Casey).
Seeing the pregnancy through isn’t necessarily affordable, either. In Mississippi, the median income for a Black woman working a full-time job is $21,049. Consider that with the cost of raising a child — roughly $11,400 per year per child under the age of 3 — in a single-parent home, under which many of the fund’s clients fall. Three-quarters of U.S. abortion patients also belong to low-income backgrounds. To that end, unintended pregnancies can serve to perpetuate and widen the poverty gap, making it a staggering hardship for yet another generation.
All of this amounts to a state that has arguably already left behind the most vulnerable women of color in the reproductive battle.
Pregnant people in crisis who are unable to reach the proper resources are often left to navigate drastic and ultimately unsafe measures. Kayla Roberts, Bertram-Roberts’s daughter and a volunteer at the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, said she knows women who have tried any number of potentially fatal techniques they picked up in what is otherwise an information and access vacuum.
Kayla got an abortion when she was 16 and now, at 21, she volunteers as the fund’s teen abortion doula to provide support to others going through abortions at a young age. For her, emotional and physical support is the most important thing women need — after the actual money for the procedure. It’s also the one thing not included in traditional abortion coverage.
“[Women] will not show it but we need support during that time. When I had my abortion, my mom was supporting me,” she said. “It meant a lot because somebody was actually there for me and I felt a little better.”
Kayla and her mom see their work as addressing the systemic issues that keep poor women down – and the need for their work is exacerbated by the limited assistance other groups promise, but often fail to deliver.
“The 'pro-life' people, they’ll send you away with a pack of diapers,” she said. The group, in contrast, will deliver boxes of diapers to those in need — on a regular basis, if they can.
The fund’s holistic view stands in stark contrast to the fake clinics that provide free and low-cost medical services to pregnant people as well as “counseling” after birth. Many of these centers, however, are run by anti-choice religious groups that employ deceptive messaging to prioritize birth regardless of the mother’s situation. They may give out free diapers and faith-based counseling sessions, but they don’t provide many other necessities that the fund offers.
“Some people spend their last [dollars] to come get an abortion. Because they know they can’t really take care of a child for another 18, 20, whatever years. Or they just can’t hold a child for nine months,” Kayla said.
Ultimately, their support can mean the difference for people navigating unintended pregnancies, whatever their personal choice. And for those who do decide to see the pregnancy through, the fund will support them.
“We like to give you options,” Kayla added. “We like to give you Mommy’s self-care time. You can come over and relax. We can cheer you. A lot of mothers need their love and got stress on their hands.”