On Demand, Without Apology: Megan Jeyifo on the Fight for Reproductive Justice in Our Current Political Landscape

On Demand, Without Apology: Megan Jeyifo on the Fight for Reproductive Justice in Our Current Political Landscape

I had the privilege of speaking with Megan Jeyifo, Executive Director of Chicago Abortion Fund (CAF) on February 6th, 2021. Founded in 1985, CAF’s mission (as stated on the organization’s website) is to “advance reproductive autonomy and justice for everyone by providing financial, logistical, and emotional support to people seeking abortion services and by building collective power and fostering partnerships for political and cultural change.” Megan’s experiences and ideas shed light on the holistic nature of reproductive justice; she emphasizes the essential role of basic resources such as education, access to food and clean water, etc. in the larger picture of reproductive justice and concisely explains why the conversation should incorporate not just abortion access, but also comprehensive medical care and safe birth for all. Megan also elucidates how the fight for reproductive justice is taking shape in our shifting political landscape. She points to the need to destigmatize abortion, something that the Biden administration has failed to do despite a professed commitment to uphold Roe v. Wade. As we seek ways to hold legislators accountable for protecting the human rights of safe and legal abortion and reproductive choice, Megan encourages us to consider the intersections of race, class, and gender in this fight and points toward the long-standing obstacles to reproductive justice which need to be dismantled.

The following transcript of my conversation with Megan has been edited for clarity. 

 

Emily: Can you tell me a little bit about what brought you to this work? A little bit about your journey.

Megan: I’ve been with CAF in various capacities for about five years now and I learned about what an abortion fund even was just a bit before that. I had two abortions years ago and had a not great experience with the first one. A lot of me getting together with CAF was wrapped up in my own experiences with accessing care. What I would say publicly on the record is that my own experiences with accessing abortion care were less than ideal and in some ways very traumatic. And so when I discovered that abortion funds exist, that I was really interested in learning more about the work, both to help a 16 year old Megan, who needed it, and also not just help people financially, but also help folks reframe the narrative that they may have in their head about their experience accessing abortion, like it should not be this hard.  The difficulty you faced in getting an abortion whether financially or logistically is not a reflection of you or your value or the morality of having an abortion. The difficulty is not a reflection of you. It is a systemic failure. And it’s compounded by so many other systemic failures in our society. And it’s not you. It’s not true. So I was really excited to work on abortion access. I started as a helpline volunteer. And then I joined the board and then I became a board co-chair and then executive director.

E: I think your story encompasses that phrasethe personal is political.” Do you see your experience in the people that you’re helping? Do you sense that it’s a commonly shared narrative?

M: I know what an abortion clinic waiting room is like. I know what an abortion feels like. I mean, everybody’s experience with their own abortion is as personal and different. But there is a collective kind of shared space that it’s nice to be in and I’m really glad that I can, by talking about my own experience with people, help them really be less scared. I think a lot of our work is about shared experiences and how we can help folks reframe (if they need to) and just provide completely nonjudgmental, one hundred percent supportive, no questions asked, trauma-informed support. I talk to a lot of parents who are helping their children. I think I seem to get assigned the parent calls because I’m a parent. So I also talk to people’s family members and try to help them also reframe because that means so much to the person that they’re supporting, although they might be helping rather begrudgingly. And it’s really nice for me to be able to say, “as someone who was in the position of your child and also as a parent, here’s where I think you need to direct your energy” and kind of give people the opportunity to talk to someone who has been in the same place that they have. And I think also being a parent and speaking to parents who are having abortions is also really helpful. When I talk to our grantees, the majority of whom are parents, I can hear their kids in the background, they can hear my kids in the background, and we can have a shared experience about that as well. We have an incredible number of volunteer caseworkers and then our staff who just take my breath away with the care that they have for people. So, yeah, it’s absolutely personal. I think it’s personal for everybody who works with us, whether they’ve had abortions or not. I think that they know that you can measure so much about the health of a society by the ability for people to control what happens with their body and to exercise their bodily autonomy. And if we can’t do that, we can’t do a lot of things.

Absolutely, yeah. I see it with people that we support. Like there’s the stigma part of it. But there’s also a lot of fear because there’s so much misinformation about abortion out there. [For example] if you Google things and you accidentally come up with a crisis pregnancy center and they’re saying, like you’re going to get breast cancer and you’re never going to have children and you know, you’re going to be scarred for life and all this stuff [if you get an abortion]. It’s nice to be able to kind of flip that on its head. 

E: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges or obstacles in people accessing abortion and the reproductive care?

M: Money, money, money. Lack of structural support, and then even when there is structural support, like we’re in a place like Illinois where we do have Medicaid coverage for abortion [there are challenges]. We just did an appeal earlier in this week. We’re trying to raise one hundred thousand dollars in a month because our normal monthly budget, which is about thirty thousand dollars, we blew through that in the first 10 days of January. We did have a cushion, so we were able to continue to support people throughout January. But it’s getting dicey where we may not be able to fund or to attempt to fund one hundred percent of the people who call us. We try to call back and support a hundred percent of the people who call us and we average about seventy five percent. But I had a donor when they saw that we had launched this campaign, emailed me late last night and she was like, “Megan, we have HB40 in Illinois. Medicaid is supposed to cover abortion. Why is this so dire? Why are your numbers rising? What’s happening? Medicaid coverage is supposed to help.” And I wrote her back right away because something that I think a lot of people don’t understand about the situation in Illinois is that Medicaid leaves so many people behind.

Medicaid coverage is amazing. It has completely transformed abortion access in Illinois since I started working with CAF. It was just a very different situation. When we have a Medicaid covered grantee call and we can just call them back and be like, “hey, you know, you can use your medical card.” It is amazing. It feels so good. But there are a lot of people who are ineligible for Medicaid during the pandemic. There are a lot of people in Illinois who have newly lost their job. So they’re newly eligible for Medicaid but abortion care is not something you can just delay while you’re waiting for your medical card to come. And with state processing times that could take anywhere from five to six days weeks to months. Undocumented people are not eligible for Medicaid coverage. Medicaid coverage does not help young people who are on their parents’ private insurance and don’t want to use it [to access abortion] for fear their parents finding out. People with private insurance in Illinois by far make up the majority of our Illinois callers now. So people who are privately insured, whether through their job or their parents, their abortions are not covered by insurance because the deductible is too high or because abortion is not a covered medical reason.

Even though the Reproductive Health Act mandated that abortion care be covered at the same rate as medical care, we’re still trying to figure out how to make insurance companies abide by that or even the people [working for the insurance companies] who answer the phone aware of that. And that’s like a bureaucratic nightmare. And again, who wants to wait when you have an appointment in one or two days? Who wants to wait? So money is a huge thing, just people being able to afford their abortions. And that’s in Illinois, where we have quite a few clinics compared to other states around us. And the other states around us are facing many, many, many more restrictions, including waiting periods for parental consent, gestational limits that are absurd. And the restrictions keep coming.

It’s [also a question of] whether or not the Biden administration is going to do what they said and repeal the Hyde Amendment, which I’m sure you know, mandates that federal insurance coverage cannot cover abortion. There’s a lot of people that think Illinois is like butterflies and rainbows, but it’s not. The same issues that would impact anyone’s ability to start or grow a family, like separate from access to abortion care, also exist here. So all of those things also are compounded to create dire situations for families. So anything that’s happening to our people in the city of Chicago, even though they can get to a clinic or a clinic is closer to them than someone in a faraway state, they’re still restricted in their ability to decide the future of themselves and their families because of the disinvestment in their communities that they’re facing.

E: How do you foresee the election changing the fight for abortion access, if at all?

M: I know we work with a lot of really amazing folks in the policy world who are working really hard to mandate a first one hundred days agenda for this Administration. For CAF, what we have faced as a small abortion fund since the election has been so incredibly exhausting that it’s hard to keep up and we’re so thankful that we work with organizations that are able to focus on this. I know that the Hyde Amendment is a huge piece of this puzzle. Joe Biden said that he wanted to end it. And then on [Roe v. Wade’s] anniversary, the statement that the administration released didn’t even say the word abortion. They’re stigmatizing abortion on the anniversary of Roe. While trying to say how important Roe is, they didn’t even say the word abortion. And there’s abortion coverage restrictions in these budgets that administrations put together all the time. And it needs to stop. Do I know what they are going to do to support people? No, I don’t. I mean, the Court is terrifying. Any restrictions on insurance coverage for abortion has to go away because it doesn’t just hurt people financially. It separates this kind of health care from every other kind of health care. And that deeply affects people. I mean, I think having Trump gone is great. But I just don’t think that this administration is going to help us achieve what we want to achieve. I could be wrong. But I haven’t seen it yet. [The current administration] won’t even say abortion! That kind of sets the tone for how you’re going to approach this kind of health care. And I do hope that in terms of other kinds of reproductive health care, that the administration also needs to tackle those things just as strongly, like the ability to have children, to give birth safely, to not die in childbirth, to have the kind of care across the country that, you know, rich folks get. That should be a big goal of this administration as well.

E: Since we know that we don’t always get the change we need from the top down, how can the people get involved in this fight for abortion access?

M: So many ways! Well, a huge way is by fundraising, obviously. And I know the DSA has been an amazing group of fundraisers for abortion funds across the country, including CAF during our annual fund-a-thon. It’s been such a joy to work with this community and to have their leadership in fundraising. So that’s a huge thing, trying to find not just the money to pay for people to access health care, but also to make sure that our staff can put food on the table and not feel like they’re underpaid or that they’re in a [toxic] working environment is really important to us. So we are trying to raise money all the time to do that.

Saying the word abortion and having conversations about abortion is so important. If people are comfortable sharing their abortion stories, not necessarily publicly, but with friends or family that they know are anti-abortion, there’s a really good saying popularized by Rene Bracey Sherman with We Testify: “Everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.” And it’s true, right? Everybody loves someone who’s had an abortion. And when you start opening up to folks about your experiences with abortion or a friend’s experiences with abortion and normalizing how much that has changed the trajectory of your lives, it helps other people understand more about what abortion means. And someone who I was talking to the other day, we were saying that this work is really heavy for people who have had abortions in a lot of ways because we know what our lives would look like without those abortions. Like, I know my life would be very different. I would not have the two amazing children that I have. I probably would not be doing this kind of work. My life would have been completely different and telling people that and helping them understand how much I was able to do with my life [because of] that. Abortion is normal. Thousands and thousands of people across this country have had abortions. And when we demonize them and stigmatize them or not even say the word, we’re sending such a clear message. So I think it’s really important that we say the word and we talk about our experiences.

Repealing parental notification of abortion in Illinois is huge. This is a really important issue that needs to be addressed. There’s a Trust Youth website  that talks about what you can do to work on repealing PNA [forced Parental Notification of Abortion], as we call it. And that’s just really, really critically important. We know that young people are 100 percent capable of making their own decisions for their health in their lives and having [forced] parental involvement can be very dangerous and it can put young folks at risk. So we’re working on that right now. You can go to https://repealpna.org/ for more information on how to work on this issue.

E: So this is kind of a big question, but how do we know when the work is done? What will that look like for individuals and for the broader political landscape?

M: Mariame Kaba was the keynote speaker at the National Network of Abortion Funds Summit in 2018 or 2019, and she talked about how when we look at what we’re doing for liberation, that she envisions stacking small rocks on top of each other and then, they come and get knocked down and then you stack them again, a little bit stronger. The quote she used was from Mary Wynn Ashford: “Since you cannot see into the future, you simply proceed to put one stone on top of another, and another on top of that. If the stones get knocked down, you begin again, because if you don’t nothing will get built.” I view that as myself stacking stones again and again, and then my children, and their children and so on, so that eventually we build the world we want together, and we do not despair, we keep on. And my dad has talked to me about that as well, like the fight that we are in. It’s not this one generation or two generations [that is solely responsible for doing the work]. So what does the world we want to see look like? It looks like any kind of health care you need on demand, without apology, without payment. It means truthful, affirming, beautiful schools, fresh food, clean air, safe housing. No fear of state or interpersonal violence. For all people. That’s a question that just made my heart hurt a little bit because I think so many of us are working really hard to get there. With everything that’s going on right now, it just feels so far out of reach that it’s almost hard to visualize. And people need more than abortions to live healthy, full, productive lives. We need so many things that we don’t have. And this public health crisis, this crisis within the compounding crises we’ve seen in the last year really underscore how true that is. We need so many things to live our best lives and so many don’t have access to those things. So abortion is just one piece of the puzzle. All right. That’s why I just love reproductive justice in general, because I feel like it [encompasses] everything. I’m looking at my children and thinking about all the things I need, just me, to be able to give them the life I want them to have. It’s a really long list. So all those things are part of our journey.

E: How do we reckon with the rooting out of abortion access and family planning for people of color? We think about eugenics, we think about forced hysterectomies and things like that. How do we reckon with those things?

M: I think that it’s really important that people are aware of the history in this country and around the world of what has happened to and what continues to happen [to people of color]. We saw what was happening in the ICE detention centers just a few months ago. I think it’s really important that folks are aware of the history of this country and what it was founded upon and how a lot of modern health care was built through horrific experimentation on Black and brown women. I think making sure that people are aware of those things and connecting the past with the present is important. In 2021, Illinois has one of the highest maternal mortality rates for Black mothers and Black parents, Black pregnant people. In the US, Black pregnant people are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white pregnant people. So, issues with family planning, eugenics, forced hysterectomies, and disparities in healthcare for people of color are not historical. It’s happening right now. The more people that are also aware that as much as we put our energy into fighting for access to abortion, we also have to fight for bodily autonomy, access to healthcare, access to safe birth. We have to fight for and defend the right of and the needs of people to parent; we have to fight for the rights of young people to become parents if that is what they choose. As much as we support young people in having the ability to have an abortion, we need to support them in having the ability to parent and give them the resources that they need to parent and also not stigmatize young people who decide to parent.

After our conversation, Megan asked me to share the following information about CAF’s upcoming Fund-a-thon:

Through the Fund-A-Thon campaign, abortion funds across the country host events to celebrate our movement and to raise money to fund abortion. CAF, with our fundraiser’s support, is going to raise $85,000 to fund abortion in 2020.

Fundraising for CAF is one of the biggest ways you can support access to abortion in Illinois at this time. The reality is this: people calling CAF for assistance with financial, emotional, and logistical support are the same people who are facing a year of unemployment and dwindling community resources. They are people coming to Illinois from other states because some politicians have further politicized and restricted access to healthcare during a global pandemic.

We have seen first hand that folks are experiencing more barriers to abortion access than ever before. We are raising and distributing money for abortion access, because our community is is need; because funding abortion is mutual aid. Since the pandemic began, the numbers of callers in need have skyrocketed. In 2020 alone, we helped serve over 1,600 people – a huge jump from the 823 people we served in 2019, and an even larger jump from the 183 people we served in 2018. In January of 2021, we supported close to 300 people, and numbers in February continue to rise. The money raised during FAT goes directly to connecting people calling CAF to abortion care!

Sign up for Fund-a-Thon and commit to fundraising for abortion access at bit.ly/fat2021