As the Supreme Court and neighboring states have limited abortion rights, Illinois has done the opposite. In 2019, Governor JB Pritzker signed a law making abortion a “fundamental right”. More recently, Illinois struck down a parental consent law for teenagers. But just getting here for the procedure can be daunting for a woman from out of state without a reliable car or credit card to book a hotel.
That’s where the Chicago-based Midwest Access Coalition comes in. Founded in 2014, it is one of the oldest and most active examples of a new kind of effort for abortion rights: the practical support organization. With a paid staff of four and more than 200 volunteer drivers and overnight hosts, MAC helps at least 120 women a month – mostly people of color, from as far away as Georgia – with the logistics and cost of travel to Illinois for a safe, legal abortion.
Leading the organization, Diana Parker-Kafka, 39, from Rogers Park, has worked for MAC since 2016 and took over as chief executive a year ago from founder Leah Greenblum. I spoke to Parker-Kafka about the organization’s role, particularly following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
What is the legality of traveling to another state for an abortion?
Currently, it is not illegal for a resident of the United States to cross a border to [commerce]. You can come here from Missouri to buy and smoke weed legally. Same thing for abortion.
Some red states, like Missouri, have started discussing how to make that harder.
I don’t even know how they would enforce that. I think the interest of talking about [enacting] such laws must have a chilling effect. Banning travel to adults for abortion care would have a huge backlash, especially if it started to hit white people.
An interesting statistic about out-of-state travel is how much more it costs.
Oh yeah. Texas Women [where abortion is banned six weeks after conception and soon will be illegal altogether] who come here seven weeks pregnant or even six weeks and two days pregnant pay for a procedure – one that might have cost them $300 before – the $300, plus $500 for gas, plus $300 for a bedroom. ‘hotel.
How does your group differ from organizations such as the Chicago Abortion Fund?
Abortion funds typically focus on helping pay for the procedure. Some offer hands-on support, but there are only about five in the whole country doing what I call “accompaniment”. We will speak with you one-on-one from the start until you return home. We primarily partner with abortion funds to fund the procedure. But we have a small bucket of funding for when a client has exhausted the capabilities of abortion funds and delaying this procedure further would make it even more expensive and inaccessible.
What type of logistical support does MAC provide, exactly?
We started this hotline program, this “buddy program”, which was basically based on the needs that people brought to us–for example, making sure they had a daycare set up, because most of our clients are parents. So we pay for child care. We have sometimes provided this childcare ourselves. We pay for the medicine, we pay for the toiletries, we pay for their food. And we’re basically available to them 24/7 on our emergency hotline. Often people’s child care plans fall through. Or a flight is canceled, if we are in the middle of a tornado or snowstorm. And just working with people on all these last minute emergencies – lots of flat tires on the way here. When you’re not connected to resources and you don’t have money, things get very, very difficult.
Even when traveling a short distance.
Even inside the city. The city is huge. We help people in the city who are not near a train or bus line. Or they’ve never really needed to leave their community and have no idea how to do it. We get people from the suburbs and the south side, which is sometimes 40 minutes from a clinic. And that might be three buses and a train, or an Uber ride. But this Uber ride is going to cost them $50, so we’ll do it for them, or it could just be a volunteer. [driver].
I read in your newsletter about Elevated Access, a new Illinois-based group of volunteer pilots who fly rural women to vendors.
One of our volunteer super-techies is a pilot and he asked us to help him get this organization off the ground. Medical flights have been going on for decades for people traveling for cancer care, that sort of thing, but he wanted to focus on people traveling for abortions. Because the pilot community is very white, conservative and masculine, he must recruit from specific groups of pilots, such as female pilots, LGBTQ+ pilots. So he asked us for our [volunteer] training materials to modify them for pilots. I did a test flight to make sure we knew how to communicate to customers what it would be like.
How did you get involved in healthcare access activism?
After college I came back [to Rogers Park] and I was thinking about my role in the world: how can I at least feel productive and useful and have a purpose in life? There was street medic training for protesters at the NATO conference [in Chicago] in 2012. And through this training, I met a lot of activists who were also focused on health care and the well-being of their communities. We have started running health and wellness trainings for different organisations, focusing on protecting you if you attend a protest or action. Then, in 2016, [MAC was] was starting to see a lot more women coming in out of state for abortions who needed help, and they wanted help to grow that program. That’s when I entered.
Could Illinois ever lose its safe haven status?
I think the state Supreme Court is a one-Democrat majority, and so this is an election that it’s going to be very important for people to run for. People call Illinois a safe state. I call it a “destination state” because we are not safe. The Conservatives will not just roe deer fall. They will look for everything. I used to tell backers that I hope we are no longer needed and that we can end this organization or change our mission, but that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.