Anne Nicol Gaylor is an 86-year-old abortion provider with no medical training of her own. Her “office supplies” consist of little more than a pen, paper, checkbook, and a telephone. On a Tuesday morning this past July, in a retirement home just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, I sat in her living room as we waited for calls from women who needed (or wanted) to obtain abortions but just didn’t have the ability to pay for them. She is their last hope for a handout.
As the founder of Women’s Medical Fund, Inc., a non-profit group she formed in 1976, Gaylor asks intimate questions of strangers without the slightest hesitation. There’s no time for emotion. There’s work to be done.
Are you single or married?
How much money do you make?
Did you use contraception?
Is the man involved helping you?
How much will your procedure cost?
Did you see a doctor yet?
Have you had an ultrasound?
Gaylor has answered the phone like this more than 20,000 times. Since 1995, WMF has raised and spent nearly $3,000,000 to help women, with most of the money — just over $200, on average, per caller — going to a small handful of providers like Planned Parenthood. The funding comes mostly from individual donors, though about a quarter of the funding last year came from foundation grants. Its mission is to make sure that a woman’s right to reproductive choice is not denied because she doesn’t have enough money, regardless of whether the pregnancy is unintended or unwanted. The organization has no paid staffers, only dedicated volunteers. And, for the moment, Gaylor is just sitting in her recliner, waiting for the next caller, waiting to write her next check.
Depending on who you ask, I’m sitting in front of a sweet woman in the final years of her life or someone who will dread meeting her Maker; a modern-day savior or a prolific serial killer; one of the great feminist activists of the past several decades or, as one newspaper columnist put it, “Granny Blood-Money.”
There are only a few prerequisites that must be met before a check can be written: the caller must live in (or plan to obtain the abortion from a shortlist of clinics in) Wisconsin, she must be more than eight weeks pregnant, and she must visit a clinic to confirm her pregnancy. Once Gaylor can verify that information, she writes out a check for up to $400 directly to the hospital, clinic, or physician performing the procedure. She also refers the callers to another national organization that may be able to write out an additional check, allowing the women to pay as little out of pocket as possible. Gaylor used to give out some of the money as a loan, hoping to get paid back eventually, but she knows better now. The women are just too poor. Still, she tries to get them to put up a little money of their own, even if it’s only $25, so that they don’t see her fund as a form of free birth control.
When I ask Gaylor how young her callers are, she opens up a nearby nightstand and pulls out a folder containing a stack of papers, all records of her phone conversations over the past few days. A sheet near the top documents a phone call she received the day before my visit, concerning a 13-year-old girl who had been raped by her 17-year-old brother.
How is anyone even supposed to process information like that?
I’m not sure whether to follow up with a question about the incest, the rape, or their ages. All crimes are reported to the police by the clinics, so Gaylor doesn’t deal with those issues. Her primary concern is whether the caller (in this case, the girl’s older sister) can pay for the procedure.
She’s immune to the horror stories by now. While it’s the first time I’ve ever heard such an awful story, she hears them on a regular basis. The youngest caller this year, she tells me, was only 11.
Gaylor knows the trends, too. While she hears from women all throughout the month, the calls tend to come near the end of the week, when some of the women receive a paycheck, and around the first of the month, when the welfare checks arrive. They don’t cry as much as they used to. They all cried when abortions were harder to come by, she recalls, but now only some shed tears. Most are just nervous. Emotional. Worried about how to pay for it. Wondering how they’ll reconcile their religious faith with their decision. Wondering if they can keep this a secret from their immediate and extended families.
Do you ever hear back from the women who call for help? She shakes her head. Few of them ever want to talk about the procedure after it’s happened. Gaylor herself has never had an abortion. In 1958, a few years after giving birth to her fourth child, she had a tubal ligation (something she highly recommends to women who’ll listen).
I wonder if there’s anything that could help make things better for her organization. More donations? Paid staffers? Nope. None of that. She just wishes women had easier access to birth control. She wishes young women could more easily report instances of rape and get immediate help. But “as long as men keep attacking women, you’re going to have a need” for abortion services.
Women’s Medical Fund, Inc. unofficially began in March of 1970, just after Wisconsin’s anti-abortion laws were declared unconstitutional by a district court. The ruling effectively made first-trimester abortions legal in the state. (It wasn’t until 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, took a similar position.)
Gaylor was already a vocal abortion-rights advocate at the time. In 1967, she wrote an editorial (she believes it to be the first of its kind) in favor of an overhaul of the state’s abortion laws. In the years to follow, she joined the Association for the Study of Abortion and the Wisconsin Committee to Legalize Abortion, spoke about the issue on radio and TV shows, and wrote a number of letters-to-the-editor of local newspapers. But in 1970, building off a program launched by scientist Paul Ehrlich, Gaylor began the Zero Population Growth Referral Service (ZPG), where she could direct women to cities where abortion services were readily available. After the Wisconsin court’s ruling, her phone began ringing — women knew they could get abortions now, but they weren’t sure from where, and they believed the outspoken Gaylor would have the answers.
On August 12, 1970, Gaylor placed an ad in two local newspapers that included ZPG’s post office box and her personal phone number. The ad urged women to contact her if their doctors weren’t helping them obtain an abortion. In the weeks to follow, nearly 100 women contacted her. Playboy magazine later mentioned her as a resource for women who needed such help, which only ramped up the number of phone calls. (“Contrary to popular opinion,” she later wrote, “Playboy readers rarely went to bed.”)
Unfortunately, local hospitals were expensive, often had long waiting periods, and required getting through all sorts of bureaucratic red tape (including, in one hospital’s case, letters from two physicians confirming that the procedure was required to save the life of the woman). One provider in Madison, Dr. Alfred Kennan, opened up an outpatient clinic for women who needed abortions, but he was limited to seeing about 100 patients a week. It wasn’t long before Gaylor began referring her callers to sites in Mexico, where the total cost for the flight, procedure, and hotel room was still less than a trip to the expensive hospital next door. (Abortions were illegal in Mexico, and still are in many parts of the country, but bribes to police officers allowed some doctors to practice without problem.) Referrals to New York soon followed.
With the help of University of Wisconsin professor Robert West, Gaylor began Women’s Medical Fund, Inc. in 1972 as an outgrowth of the service she was already providing. It was incorporated as a non-profit in 1976 and is now said to be the country’s largest and oldest independent, all-volunteer abortion fund.
The Hyde Amendment, passed by Congress in 1976 and still in effect today, resulted in an even greater demand for Gaylor’s service. The legislation bans the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, with exceptions made only for rape, incest, and to save the life of the woman. Because Medicaid funds are included in this ban, poor women are disproportionately affected and they frequently need financial help to go through with the procedure. According to the National Network of Abortion Funds, which WMF is a member of, “[t]here are 15 states that use their own money to pay for abortion care as part of their Medicaid programs, but there are 35 that do not.” Wisconsin is one of the 35.
WMF no longer advertises as it once did, but local clinics are aware of it and they frequently refer clients who need financial assistance to Gaylor’s organization. It’s not hard to see why: the non-profit has virtually no overhead costs and, as the group’s financial records show, more than 99% of its income goes right back to paying for abortion care.
If you called WMF today, using information available on some older websites, you might reach the offices of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), another organization Gaylor founded in the late 1970s. FFRF is a church/state separation watchdog, writing letters of complaint to those who appear to be violating the First Amendment and filing lawsuits against them if needed. Gaylor officially retired from the organization in 2004, though she still holds the title of “president emerita.” Staffers at FFRF screen the callers and only then give them Gaylor’s direct line — to the phone in her living room — offering her an additional layer of security. (Most clinics, after screening the women, give them Gaylor’s number directly.)
After 61 years of marriage, Gaylor’s husband Paul died of brain cancer in 2011 and she moved into the retirement home where she now lives in the summer of 2012. Gaylor herself suffers from macular degeneration and glaucoma, but her voice, while frail, is still strong enough to answer the calls. (Her son-in-law, Dan Barker, said about her in a 2004 tribute, “She may be losing her eyesight, but she is not losing her vision.”)
Gaylor’s only daughter inherited her mother’s activist streak. Annie Laurie Gaylor is one of the co-presidents of the FFRF, along with Barker, and she’s also no stranger to anger from the opposition. At FFRF’s headquarters in Madison, they even have a system in place for dealing with all the hate-mail they receive: Serious threats go in one pile, angry letters go in another.
According to Annie Laurie, fighting for church/state separation is similar to fighting for abortion rights, but “they want to kill you more” when you do abortion work.
The elder Gaylor is used to that kind of hostility, too. When I asked how she responded to threats, her voice became a little stronger, a little more confident.
“I ignore them.”
Just as I’m leaving Gaylor’s apartment, with my computer packed up and my keys in hand, the phone rings. Gaylor answers it while instinctively picking up a pen and a form. She listens quietly for a few seconds while jotting down some basic information about the caller. Gaylor asks where she’s from. And how much the provider is charging. And if she’s visited the clinic for her first appointment. There’s an extended pause after that question, after which I hear Gaylor gently cut in: “You have to have that appointment before I can take your application, because at that point, they will do the ultrasound which will confirm exactly how far you are, and then they’ll be able to tell you exactly what the cost will be.”
The call lasts only two minutes before Gaylor hangs up the phone and smiles at me. “Ordinarily, they’re more interesting to listen to,” she jokes.
WMF won’t last — can’t last — much longer in its current form. Gaylor won’t always be around to answer the phone. But a contingency plan has already been drawn up. When the time comes, the group’s board of directors and additional volunteers will take over the phone calls and other menial tasks that Gaylor has been doing for decades now. They haven’t worked out all the logistics yet, but thankfully, they haven’t had to. They’re considering getting a dedicated cell phone that is assigned to volunteers during shifts or getting a phone number that goes straight to voicemail and having volunteers call the women back. For now, Gaylor is able to answer all the calls herself on a landline without leaving her home.
One of WMF’s board members, Nora Cusack, wrote to me that if abortion services were covered by health insurance providers or Medicaid the same way as other medical procedures, the phone might just stop ringing. Or at least not ring as much. That, too, would ease the succession problem.
Gaylor’s mission when she began WMF was to help women obtain legal abortions even if they couldn’t afford them. That mission hasn’t changed, but as she sits back down to wait for the next call, she reflects on the grander vision she has for the future: “It would be nice to not be needed.”