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One City May Become the First to Directly Fund Abortion Access

Scott Stringer speaks about the need to directly fund abortions at the city level.

Scott Stringer speaks about the need to directly fund abortions at the city level. Susan Watts/Office of New York City Comptroller

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The New York City comptroller has proposed directing $250,000 to an abortion access fund in response to tightening abortion restrictions around the country.

Abortion is getting a lot of attention in state legislatures, with lawmakers in recent months taking up both strict restrictions and access protections. But one official in New York City thinks it is time for the country’s largest city to wade into the debate.

New York may become the first city in the country to directly fund abortion care—not just for women who live there, but also for women who live in states with strict abortion limits who travel to the city for their reproductive care. City comptroller Scott Stringer has proposed that the city set aside $250,000 of its $92 million budget for the New York Abortion Access Fund, a volunteer-run organization that covers the cost of an abortion for around 500 to 600 people per year who can’t afford the procedure. Stringer estimates that the additional money would help another 500 women.

“It’s crystal clear that abortion access is under attack in a way it hasn’t been in a very long time,” Stringer said. “One of the ways we can fight back as a city is to put this money towards ensuring that all women have access to safe, compassionate care.”

Though federal funding won’t pay for most abortions, New York is one of 15 states that funds abortions for people on the state’s Medicaid plan. The state is also one of four that mandates commercial insurance companies cover abortions with no co-pay, but many women still slip through the cracks, said Danielle Castaldi-Micca, the vice president for political and government affairs with the National Institute of Reproductive Health, which is working with Stringer on the initiative.

Castaldi-Micca, who catalogues abortion policy around the country through the Local Reproductive Freedom Index, said that New York would be taking a meaningful step as the first city to directly finance abortion care.

“There are lots of people who still lack access to care,” said Castaldi-Micca. “People with federal insurance and Medicare for disability, those in AmeriCorps and on the Indian Health Service, veterans—all those people face additional barriers. And then there’s those who can’t use their insurance because sending an explanation of benefits to their partner or parent isn’t safe, or because they have a deductible they can’t afford.”

The Abortion Access Fund also provides assistance to those who are uninsured, who can’t wait for insurance paperwork to be proceed, and those who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to cover the out-of-pocket cost of an abortion.

The prospect of a covered abortion draws many people from other states to the fund, which provided 37% of its funds in 2017 to people who don’t live in New York. Stringer said that welcoming others to the state is something of a tradition, since New York legalized abortion in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade. “We get people who come to New York City because of our laws, and we’re willing to help all those in need,” Stringer said.

Allowing people from out of state to access the funding is fundamental, said Castaldi-Micca, who thinks that cities can be the next leaders in promoting abortion access.  “New York City has an enormous budget, and it funds a whole host of health care programs. It’s important for officials in this city who say they’re horrified by what’s happening in other states to put their money where their mouth is—literally,” Castaldi-Micca said.

But not all New Yorkers approve of spending their tax dollars in this way. Pastor Joni Lupis, a co-founder of Grace and Truth Church who organizes the New York March for Life, said that the measure is wrong for the city. “I’m all for women’s health, but abortion is not healthy for women or their babies,” she said. “Babies can be aborted up to nine months of pregnancy in the state, and I believe that’s fundamentally wrong.”

While women can have late term abortions in the state, those procedures are allowed only when the mother’s health is at risk, or the fetus isn’t viable, meaning it won’t survive after birth or will be stillborn. Otherwise, the bill signed into law in New York in early 2019 imposes a 24-week limit on abortions. Still, Lupis says that state and city’s measures to make abortion more accessible have driven increased interest in the march on the state Capitol next month, which she expects will draw several thousand more people than the same event last year.

In recent months, laws passed in eight states to ban or severely limit abortion access. Proponents say they aim to create legal battles that could reach the Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade, which would open the possibility for total bans in states that initiate them. On the other hand, lawmakers in a few states have expanded access to abortion, including New York, by declaring it a fundamental right.

At the New York city council level, advocates for the funding are cautiously optimistic that the measure will pass. “Though there are some anti-choice council members in the city, we haven’t seen a significant amount of ideological opposition to the proposal,” said Castaldi-Micca, who noted that the real challenge is making the funding a priority in the budget process.

Next steps for the proposal include the comptroller testifying before the city council during budget deliberations on Thursday. Stringer believes he can make a strong financial argument for the proposal.

Brad Lander has been the first council member to publicly indicate his support, which he did via Twitter, and Mayor Bill de Blasio seems open to the proposal. “In New York City, we’ll always fight to preserve a woman’s right to choose. We look forward to reviewing this proposal,” Raul Contreras, the mayor’s spokesperson, told Route Fifty in an email.

Stringer said he looks forward to discussing the issue with other members of the city government. “I think it’s fair to say that all elections are about choice now, even at the city level,” Stringer said. “This has been a fight for generations. But now, for a lot of women, this is a very scary time, and our city really has to step up. I think once we do, we’ll set a precedent that other cities can follow.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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