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AROUND TOWN

Helping to Equalize Access to Abortion

September 02, 1994|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

About six times a day, a call comes in from a clinic somewhere in the United States to a small office in Los Angeles. The caller has a client seeking an abortion. The client needs money.

WRRAP--the Women's Reproductive Rights Assistance Project--is there to offer financial aid to women who live in states or counties where safe, affordable abortion is either legally denied them or is just unavailable.

"We have very few doctors willing to perform these services," says Joyce Schorr of the National Council of Jewish Women, Los Angeles, which funds and runs WRRAP. She cites Guttmacher Institute data showing that 85% of U.S. counties have no doctors who perform abortions.

And, she says, with another doctor having been shot to death--in July, outside a Florida clinic, "I'm sure we're going to see that number drop."

WRRAP occupies a unique niche. "We're the only pro-choice group of a national organization funding on a national level," says Schorr, a longtime abortion rights activist who broached the idea to the NCJW two years ago.

First, the project needed a catchy name. Says project director Fran Chalin, the only paid staffer: "We flirted with Feisty Ladies in the Geographically Hazardous Territories"--FLIGHT, for short--but they decided WRRAP had teen appeal.

A comedy show at the Palace Theater in October, 1992, raised $20,000. Right away, WRRAP set up shop. Recalls Chalin: "I called this one clinic in Mississippi and said, 'Look, we have this money. . . .' They were just floored."

Six months later, WRRAP was linked up nationwide, having joined the fledgling National Network of Abortion Funds, a coalition of 31 agencies that have, to date, given $1 million to 6,000 women.

With little fanfare, WRRAP has raised about $40,000 and given $30,000 to 256 women in 25 states. Kelsey Grammer will be among performers at its third fund-raiser, "Comics Choice," on Oct. 16 at the Comedy Store.

Now, NCJW-L.A. is talking of asking the council's 200-plus sections across the country and their 100,000 members to back the project. L.A. would remain as headquarters.

Chalin and volunteer Leslie Carder-Hoffman screen all calls to determine that the need is legitimate, that the clinic is licensed and that it is willing to lower its fees for indigent clients.

"There's no judgment passed here," Carder-Hoffman says. Clients get no advice. Whether to have an abortion is strictly the woman's decision.

Who are WRRAP's clients?

There was a Florida girl who had been gang-raped. There was a Texas woman whose husband was murdered when she was three months pregnant. "We funded her abortion," Chalin says, "so she could bury her husband" with their savings.

Carder-Hoffman tells of a Colorado college student who was raped at a party. Before seeking help at a clinic, she had tried to abort by jumping from a moving truck and by using a coat hanger.

There are cases where the fetus is deformed and the family feels unable to afford ongoing medical care. There are women in abusive relationships. Increasingly, there are incest cases and young women with AIDS.

For women in some states, WRRAP is, as Chalin puts it, "the fund of last resort." And it has yet to turn down a legitimate request.

After the woman has the abortion, WRRAP wires the money to the clinic. To ensure against fraud, the money is never given to the woman. In about 20% of the cases, Carder-Hoffman says, the women change their minds and "never come back."

California is one of 12 states that offers publicly funded abortions under all or most circumstances. Where a woman's life is endangered, she is legally entitled to a publicly funded abortion in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In 15 states, a woman is entitled to public funding in case of fetal deformity.

A recent federal mandate to publicly fund abortions in cases of rape or incest is as yet not being complied with in at least seven states; in others, rape victims, fearful of retribution should they report the crime, seek out-of-state clinics where reporting is not mandatory.

Some women need only $100; others need the entire amount. Where women do not have access to abortion on demand, travel and hotel costs can quadruple expenses. Sometimes, while saving the money for an abortion, a woman passes the eight-week mark and costs jump.

The average cost of a first trimester, uncomplicated abortion funded by WRRAP is $250 to $300. Typically, WRRAP pays 60% to 70%, the client and the clinic sharing the rest. WRRAP makes grants, not loans. But a few clients do repay in part, even if it's only a letter of thanks with $5 enclosed.

NCJW-L.A. Executive Director Marcia Antopol sees the council and WRRAP as a perfect match, pointing out that for 100 years NCJW has been "on the cutting edge" in advocating for women and children on issues such as child care and domestic violence.

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