Chapter 2: Launching the Women’s Medical Fund

Prior to the Roe v Wade decision, Prof. Robert West of the University of Wisconsin Chemistry Department, his wife Peggy and I were discussing a particularly sad situation where a very young, disadvantaged girl needed to go to New York. The Madison clinic could accept only about 100 patients a week, and as the only freestanding clinic between the east and west coasts it was receiving more than 1,000 calls a week. So unless someone made her appointment very, very promptly she just didn’t get in the Madison clinic.

“We should start a fund,” Bob said, “to help some of these women.”

“Oh, Bob,” I replied. “That fund would always be running out of money.”

“But we’d help some,” he persisted. And so, in 1972, the Women’s Medical Fund was born and incorporated, and over the years has helped more than 5,000 women.

And, yes, it always does run out of money. No private fund possibly could meet the need; it is a public problem. But we were able to help thousands avoid personal tragedies.

We pooled some money and started asking friends. And I began my two decades of letter writing describing the requests that were coming in, the great need, and asking for contributions. When public funding started to pay for women on welfare in the mid-70’s, the Fund was able to cut back, although, as we learned, there were many low-income women who did not qualify for public assistance.

Then the Hyde Amendment was passed with its dictum of no federal funds for abortion. Surprisingly, from a legal point of view, it was held constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. I had thought that if a state did not choose to pay for deliveries, then obviously it could refuse to pay for abortions, but I could not understand the legal rationale that precluded choice for those who were poor, for a less expensive, safer procedure. If abortion rights supporters had won this round, I think the antiabortionists would not have been encouraged to go on. Even zealots need a victory now and then, and their efforts up to that point had been repudiated in the courts. As a result of Hyde, there were to be no more abortions for the poorest women in most of our states, unless individual states decided to pay or help was available from private sources.

As Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote: “. . . for women eligible for Medicaid—poor women—denial of a Medicaid funded abortion is equivalent to denial of legal abortion altogether.”

The Fund helps women who qualify for public medical assistance for the most part, although any tragic case is eligible to be considered. Believe me, you can be poor and not be on welfare! Referrals are made by social workers, teachers, counselors, probation officers, hospitals, doctors, nurses or clinic staff. Typically, clinics will give reduced rates to women on public assistance, so early abortion can be affordable. Usually, the total cost is $200-$250, and I urge the woman to find half the money she needs. If that’s impossible, as it often is, I ask her to find something—even if it is just $25 or $35. An application is filled out for each woman helped and the check is made payable to the clinic or physician to be sure the money is used for the intended purpose. Although most of the money is given as a gift for the woman, a few offer to repay, with the Fund typically receiving $2,000 to $3,000 annually in paybacks.

The Fund is completely volunteer. There are no salaries, no rent, no overhead. Phone, postage and printing costs are contributed. The service simply follows me around, at my home or office. Since outside costs involve only minor fees to state agencies, bank charges and an annual audit, the charity is very “pure,” with donors getting the best possible return for their contributions.

Bob West believes the Women’s Medical Fund is the oldest continuously operating fund of its kind in the country Since there is so little publicity about private funds, and consequently so little communication on the subject, we’re not sure. However, we did precede Roe v Wade and never quit.

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