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Alabama group continues fight to help women obtain reproductive care

Jenice Fountain could not believe what she was hearing.

Was that Steve Marshall, the attorney general of Alabama, on talk radio, threatening to go after her tiny organization, which is dedicated to supporting pregnant Alabamians seeking legal abortion care?

Indeed, it was the state’s top law enforcement official – on the airwaves less than two months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision to strike down Roe v. Wadesaying he would seek to criminally prosecute anyone who is helping people obtain lawful abortions out of state. He included “groups out of Tuscaloosa, for example, that … [at] one point in time have talked about it.”

That apparent jab at the Yellowhammer Fund put the small nonprofit organization on a frightening rollercoaster ride that continues to this day. The group, founded in Tuscaloosa in 2017 by volunteers, is now staffed by nine people who work from their homes advocating for reproductive justice. Like other such organizations across the country, it has been holding on for dear life, trying to preserve its ability to pursue its mission.

A groundbreaking Southern Poverty Law Center report that was released this week, Anti-Abortion Extremism: Inside the Movement Dismantling Our Reproductive Rights, examines the kinds of restrictions being placed on “helper” organizations like the Yellowhammer Fund; the often-violent history of anti-abortion militancy; the ways that history is inspiring the new anti-abortion movement; and how today’s political landscape is impacting clinics, providers and activists.

The report finds that anti-abortion politics – heavily concentrated in the South, a region with the country’s highest poverty rates and where more than half of Black Americans live – are wedded to far-right political movements in the U.S. and are a product of the male and white supremacist political project. People in the South are the most likely in the country to be either arrested for reasons related to their pregnancy or to have the terms of their bail, sentencing or probation heightened because they became pregnant after being charged with unrelated crimes.

“This isn’t just misogyny, it’s about subjugating and controlling women and everyone who can become pregnant – and that’s what shifts it into new territory,” said the report’s primary author, Cassie Miller, senior research analyst team lead for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “What we’ve seen a lot of, especially post-Dobbs, is that there is this very strong, very mobilized effort to use our legal system and to use state legislatures to push the government essentially to become more and more involved in denying reproductive care – and to do it in a very punishing way that can result in criminalization of a pregnancy or an abortion.”

‘Red flag moment’

The report tracks attacks on groups like the Yellowhammer Fund and on pregnant women themselves. In that landscape, the SPLC argues, groups like the Yellowhammer Fund are key allies in the battle for reproductive justice just as people who participated in the Freedom Rides of the 1960s were heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Yellowhammer Fund and WAWC Healthcare, formerly West Alabama Women’s Center, have been locked in a legal battle with the Alabama attorney general over his threat, which he has repeated in various forums since the initial statement on radio. WAWC provided abortions until the Supreme Court empowered Alabama political leaders to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

Last summer, The Lawyering Project, joined by the SPLC, filed a federal civil rights complaint on Yellowhammer’s behalf seeking to block the attorney general from taking action on the threat. The lawsuit charges that Marshall’s threats violate the organization’s constitutional rights to free speech, free association, free travel and due process. The threats, the complaint charges, also violate the sovereignty of states that allow abortion. The suit has been consolidated with a separate civil rights complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Alabama on behalf of WAWC and a provider, Dr. Yashica Robinson.

Marshall’s rhetoric has kneecapped both the Yellowhammer Fund and WAWC. Fearful of prosecution, Yellowhammer stopped funding abortions and hasn’t resumed doing so, while WAWC has stopped providing the procedure. Desperate to continue helping women who need it, Yellowhammer has dedicated itself to coordinating the transfer of patient care to out-of-state providers, helping them with scheduling appointments and forwarding medical records. 

“This is a red flag moment,” said Jamila Johnson, senior counsel with The Lawyering Project. “It’s an effort by the state of Alabama to isolate pregnant people from those who are there to help them. But it’s also an effort to interfere with the rights of travel that we all have, a right that makes it so that we’re not a bunch of individual states but a unified nation. When you start making efforts to prevent helpers from helping people do something that they have a constitutional right to do, which is travel between the states, you are really jeopardizing what our country is about.”

The plaintiffs scored a major victory in May when U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson allowed the case to proceed, writing that a patient’s right to travel was “inextricably bound up” with the groups.

“The Constitution protects the right to cross state lines and engage in lawful conduct in other states, including receiving an abortion,” Thompson wrote. “Travel is valuable precisely because it allows us to pursue opportunities available elsewhere.”

‘Health at risk’

The Yellowhammer Fund’s fight for survival is far from the only battle being waged against pregnant women in Alabama and many other states in a war that has spanned generations. Even under Roe, many women – particularly women of color, those living in poverty and those in states hostile to reproductive rights – lacked practical access to abortion and other reproductive care. Now, as new restrictions are enacted, Black and Brown women and women in marginalized situations are being targeted. 

Such targeting is the basis of a separate civil rights case filed late last year by the SPLC and the organization Pregnancy Justice. The plaintiff is Ashley Caswell, who was pregnant when she was arrested on charges including that she was endangering her unborn fetus by using controlled substances while pregnant. After Caswell landed in a notorious Alabama county jail, jail officials violated her civil rights by denying her necessary medical care during a high-risk pregnancy, according to the claim. Her pleas for help were ignored as she delivered her baby alone in a filthy jail shower, almost losing her life.

“This litigation demonstrates the hypocrisy of the fact that officials allege they’re prosecuting women like Ashley Caswell to protect the unborn, when the reality is that pregnancy criminalization puts not only women’s health at risk but infant and fetal health at risk,” said Emma Roth, senior staff attorney with Pregnancy Justice and co-counsel on the Caswell case. “For pregnant women it’s heads the state wins, tails women lose.”

In that environment, the Yellowhammer Fund was already under extraordinary stress. Since its founding it had been straining to help people seeking to terminate pregnancies in a state shockingly inhospitable to their needs. In its first five years, the group regularly connected more than 125 pregnant individuals each week with the dwindling number of abortion providers in the state and was driving others to states where abortion was more easily accessible. Like other such groups around the country, it helped with the costs of transportation and medical fees.

Then came the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs on June 24, 2022. The ruling stated that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, overruling Roe v. Wade. Days later, abortion in Alabama became illegal in almost every instance. The Yellowhammer Fund – named after the state bird, a bright little woodpecker tough enough to punch holes in trees with its beak – was, like the people it was dedicated to help, reeling.

“After the Dobbs decision, we were fully expecting that abortion would be banned in the state, but what we weren’t expecting was to be threatened not to fund or advise people where to go instead,” said Fountain, executive director of the Yellowhammer Fund.

Not giving up

Now a mother, Fountain said she had two abortions earlier in her life, once because a pregnancy would have derailed her chances to attain a college degree and once when she was going through a painful divorce.

“This is personal for me,” Fountain said. “It is central to who I am to make sure that people that may be in similar circumstances as myself have access to care when they need it.”

In the wake of Marshall’s threat, Fountain and her colleagues at Yellowhammer were forced to shut down their helpline and eliminate a staff position that had been dedicated to helping women find abortion services. While they previously drove women to abortion clinics in another state, where wait times and other bureaucracy surrounding the procedure were less onerous, now they are constrained from even pointing people seeking to terminate a pregnancy to specific facilities.

When people call for help now, they send them articles and other general literature on self-managing abortions. They hand out diapers, wipes and other supplies. They beg for funding that donors are increasingly loath to sink into organizations whose hands are tied, and they face harassment from anti-abortion activists who have taken photos of them at their homes and harassed them online.

Even so, Fountain said, Yellowhammer is not giving up.

It is working to build a grassroots network of community leaders. It organized a bus tour to bring educational materials, contraceptives and baby supplies to rural communities in the state. And it established a fellowship to bring new people into the fight for reproductive justice.

“The people trying to shut down access to abortion services and to criminalize pregnant women say they are all about the sanctity of life, which is ironic,” Fountain said. “Because obviously they don’t care about people at all. There are people living and breathing that they don’t care about.”

Photo at top: From left: Stephen Stetson, director of Planned Parenthood Alabama; Jenice Fountain, executive director of the Yellowhammer Fund; and Heidi Miller, Yellowhammer Fund development manager, appear at a March 2023 panel discussion by Alabama Values on reframing the narrative around reproductive justice in Alabama. (Courtesy of Alabama Values)