Andrea Grimes was drinking a Live Oak HefeWeizen at the Posse East bar in Austin, Texas, when she sent a tweet that sparked what’s now an annual event for abortion funds.
This was 2014, when social media was flooded with images of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the once ubiquitous fundraiser for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
“An ice bucket sounded miserable,” Grimes recalled thinking, as she told Rewire in a recent interview. “Wouldn’t eating a taco and drinking a beer be a much more pleasant way to get involved in something you care about?”
She tweeted a photo challenging her followers to drink a beer, eat a taco, and fund abortion.
“It just snowballed,” she said. “The idea was for people to get to know their local fund, to know they actually exist.”
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The Taco or Beer Challenge raised close to $30,000 that first year. The goal is to raise around the same amount this year, according to the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), which now coordinates the nationwide event. A month-long celebration of reproductive justice, the challenge runs through September 15.
“It’s an easy introduction to abortion funds,” said Aimee Arrambide, board member with Fund Texas Choice, a four-year-old fund. “People love to eat tacos and drink beer. This way you can do it, and support a cause, and teach people why abortion funds are necessary.”
Three years after she started the challenge, Grimes believes abortion funds are becoming much higher profile. Following the 2016 election, when countless marchers around the country donned pink pussy hats in support of reproductive rights, funding abortion is being seen as an act of political resistance, she believes.
“People are becoming more comfortable talking about abortion, funding abortion,” she told Rewire.
Approximately 70 abortion funds are affiliated with NNAF, a membership organization that seeks to break down logistical and financial barriers to abortion access. Many funds are small volunteer-run organizations that help patients pay for abortion services or cover traveling expenses when the closest abortion clinic is miles and miles away.
“We think about fun runs for breast cancer awareness, but certain causes are steeped in shame or stigma,” explained Lucy Marshall, board member with Women’s Medical Fund in Wisconsin. The fund is the nation’s oldest all-volunteer statewide abortion fund, Marshall says. “Making it about having a taco or beer is intentional. It’s about pushing the movement into a space that’s accessible and loving and about people’s basic needs being met.”
With the passage of nearly 400 abortion restrictions since 2010, and considering Republicans now control 32 statehouses, abortion funds represent a barometer of the increasingly perilous state of abortion access. Marshall told Rewire that Women’s Medical Fund has seen a sharp spike in demand for help paying for abortion services. The fund gave a total of $155,000 to 470 pregnant people in the first six months of this year—up 30 percent from the same period last year. The majority of grantees were on Medicaid, which doesn’t cover abortions with few exceptions, or had private insurance that excluded abortion coverage.
Marshall said seven in ten of the fund’s grantees already have children and often represent the most vulnerable members of society. In 2016, 15 percent lacked permanent shelter or had experienced gender-based violence, while in about 5 percent of cases, the pregnancy resulted from a reported rape.
Marshall sees a correlation between reproductive rights and the fight for fair housing, equal educational opportunities, and just policing in marginalized communities. “Access to abortion doesn’t stand in isolation,” she explained. “So really the fight for economic justice, fight for racial justice, must include a fight for abortion access. These things are interdependent.”
In Ohio, abortion restrictions have closed about half of the clinics in the past few years, said Nancy Starner, director of development and communications with Preterm, a Cleveland reproductive health provider founded shortly after the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. Preterm runs a fund that has provided almost $15 million in care since 1974, Starner said. This year, however, the Taco or Beer Challenge won’t fund services. Instead it will help pay for $20,000 in window damage so the clinic can continue serving patients despite repeated attacks of vandalism, Starner told Rewire.
“This is what abortion access looks like in Cleveland right now,” she said.
Other abortion funds cover travel expenses. “Plane tickets, bus tickets, Uber fare, taxi rides, hotel accommodations, that sort of thing,” said Arrambide, with Fund Texas Choice.
Fund Texas Choice formed in 2013 after the passage of the Texas law HB 2, which included unconstitutional provisions that shut down half of Texas’ abortion clinics. In 2016, the fund spent $163,100 on 334 trips to abortion clinics, Arrambide told Rewire. Because of the state’s harsh anti-abortion laws, close to half of those trips were out of state. One of the most common destinations was Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“We’re still in an abortion desert in a lot of places in Texas,” she said. “I think people were under the impression that clinics would automatically reopen. That’s not the case.”
As Rewire‘s Teddy Wilson has reported, abortion providers have been slowly reopening clinics since the Supreme Court’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision. However, abortion is facing fresh attacks since the legislature launched its special session this year.
If a new anti-choice law goes into effect in September to outlaw the most common second-trimester abortion procedure, Arrambide expects “Texans will have to start traveling to seek abortion as early as 12 to 13 weeks.”
Arrambide said demand for help with travel expenses has already skyrocketed. “The number of calls we receive has risen exponentially each month,” she said. They fielded a total of 894 calls in 2016.
The Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood Federation of America have sued to block the measure in court.
Despite these challenges, new abortion funds are emerging to aid pregnant people in other Republican strongholds, such as Alabama. The state imposes many restrictions on abortion, including a 48-hour delay, state-mandated counseling, and parental consent for minors. Alabama’s five abortion clinics not only serve its residents, but also pregnant people from surrounding states like Mississippi, which has only one clinic.
Cassidy Ellis, co-founder of the new Yellowhammer Fund in Tuscaloosa, told Rewire she sees “positive signs in some dark times.”
“Since the election, we have seen a greater turnout in the number of volunteers,” Ellis said. “We have seen an uptick in the number of folks who are willing to turn out and speak out for this issue. I think that’s exciting in a super red state like Alabama. If we can generate support in Alabama for it, it’s indicative of the ways in which the movement can increase at large throughout the country.”
Wisconsin’s Marshall is also eager to rally with abortion funds around the country during the Taco or Beer Challenge. But she remains vigilant about the day-to-day realities. Without grassroots fundraising, she said they would’ve fallen short meeting this year’s spike in need.
“We need this money,” she said. “The individuals who are most impacted by these issues need it now more than ever.”