Should Pro-Choice Organizations Be Involved in Advocacy Work?

While I was at the organizing summit for the National Network of Abortion Funds, I attended a very spirited debate on the topic of advocacy versus direct service. Specifically, the speakers were debating whether or not organizations like the abortions funds should focus their efforts on direct service (helping women pay for their abortions), or advocacy (trying to get the laws changed surrounding abortion). I’ll summarize each side’s arguments, and then you can give your opinion in the comments section. I’d love to hear how you view the debate.

Direct Service
In 2009, one in four women in the United States carried an unwanted pregnancy to term because the cost of an abortion was too high. That number is the motivation that drives the work of NNAF and its member funds. Last year, NNAF chapters answered calls from 126,000 women who needed help paying for their abortions; 24,000 were able to be served. According to the Guttmacher report cited earlier, there are about 200,000 women in the United States who need assistance paying for an abortion. If each of those women received $200 in assistance, that would mean that pro-choice groups would need to raise $40 million to meet the need. Last year NNAF chapters raised approximately $1.4 million, which is not a paltry amount of money. However, it’s very clear that there is still a lot of work left for us to do, and we currently don’t have enough money

Providing funding for abortion is simply a bandage solution, and it’s only a means to an end. The women who call abortion funds for assistance have larger economic issues at play. The fact is that we would have fewer late term abortions if laws like the Hyde Amendment didn’t exist and women could obtain abortions earlier in their pregnancies. Abortions become more expensive when they are delayed. So we need to be advocating for the laws to be changed in order to increase the availability of public funding for abortion.

Additionally, there is no such thing as a single issue movement. We need to be building larger advocacy coalitions that reach outside of the pro-choice movement for support.  This is an issue of economic justice, a lack of affordable housing, and unreliable access to public transportation; it’s a part of the much larger movement towards universal health care access; and it’s also a labor issue – since women need access to time off of work and often need child care to be able to go to a health care provider.  If we’re really after reproductive justice, we have got to connect all of the dots.

Direct Service
While all of the advocacy arguments may be true, we don’t have enough money to solve all of these problems. As a result, we need to focus on our movement’s central issue – access to abortion.

In addition, election cycles are unpredictable.  We may have a victory in one election, only to see it reversed two years down the line.  There is no way we can change things on the federal, state, and local levels.  The idea is just overwhelming.  There are already other organizations, such as Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and Emily’s List, who are focusing on the electoral issues.  So let’s conserve our resources and our staff/volunteer power for providing direct service to women who need funding for abortion – we don’t have the capacity to spread ourselves too thin by doing advocacy work in addition to direct service.

While it’s true that electoral work in relentless, we have to change the current laws, such as the Hyde Amendment, in order to ensure that every woman who needs an abortion is able to get one. NNAF is unique, because it has combined advocacy and direct service when the rest of the movement has tried to divide the issue. Abortion funds do not need to have a big budget or paid staff members to be able to conduct advocacy work. The Chicago Abortion Fund, for example, only has two staff members. However, they recruit volunteers from the core of the women they have served. They empower women to empower others. In that sense, direct service is a form of advocacy work in itself. And nothing is more powerful than a woman telling her own story. Advocacy can only be successful when we bring these women’s voices to the table.

My Opinion – For What It’s Worth
I don’t think this is an either/or debate. I see the merits of both sides of the argument. However, from the point of view of someone who is trying to get an abortion fund off of the ground in Arizona, we need to prioritize our efforts. Getting a volunteer base together to provide direct service is the entire reason that we’re forming an abortion fund – that has to be our bottom line. Yes – economic justice is the root of the issue. But to be totally honest, I don’t have any illusions that we can change the political landscape in the state of Arizona. I think we need to be looking 3-5 years down the line and preparing to support women when access is even more curtailed than it is now.

Those are just my two cents about the debate. I’d love to hear where you fall on the issue. Do you think direct service is the priority? Or do pro-choice organizations need to be focusing on advocacy work?

About Serena:
Serena is a freelance writer who enjoys baking, protesting, and playing with little dogs.


  1. Dree_Dee says:

    Interesting read, thanks for the post…
    I too feel that both arguments are quite relevant and valid, but I am also a huge proponent for empowerment and the trickle down factor, which effective laws may have the desired effect in creating.
    Gathering money for the here and now,is required for
    those who need help, yesterday. I get it. But until its legislated into law (w caveats to ensure that its NOT jus for this gov’t's term, etc), I really dont have confidence in its sustainability. This type of change to deal w the issue at hand requires both teams (advocacy and service deliverÝ via fundraising)to work in collaboration for the short AND long term benefits that we would like to see. Its been extremely bleak on this horizon, since Jan of 2001…I still have the article that left the pit in my stomach (when the lLeading country in donations for family planning ctrs,stopped funding those clinics that provide abortions). I’m rambling.
    Thanks for the read!

  2. Maureen says:

    Thank you for presenting both sides of the argument here. Each side of the debate is right, I think. But the beauty of it all is that there are so many organizations that focus on widening access to abortion, whether via advocacy or direct service. I don’t think the answer lies in mutual exclusivity, but rather working in tandem towards the same goal: ensuring that women have access to the healthcare services they need and have a right to obtain. I, personally, work on the advocacy side and while it often makes me want to bang my head against the wall in frustration, the fact is that inroads CAN be made in shifting the legislative landscape. Without advocacy, direct service organizations will need to raise a lot more money because the laws will only get “worse.” Likewise, advocacy orgs can’t provide money to individuals for abortion services, so we need direct service orgs! It’s a beautiful marriage, really :)

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