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The Price of Life 

Groups that subsidize abortion fees say more needy women are calling for help. Could a bad economy cause an increase in the abortion rate?

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Lindsey Oliver was volunteering outside an abortion clinic, escorting patients to and from the door, when a guy passing by gave her $20. Thanks for being here, he told her, and suggested she buy pizza for lunch.

Instead, she used the money as the first donation for the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project, a volunteer-run nonprofit she helped launch to distribute money to women who needed help paying for their abortions. That was five years ago. This winter, though, Oliver says her group has been getting an increasing number of requests for assistance while the economic downturn deepens.

In less than four months, since September, the project has given money to 23 women. Compare that with the 12 months prior to September, when the nonprofit served 19 women.

It's a small sample, but the trend is duplicated nationwide, says Stephanie Poggi, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds. “We're certainly hearing from our member funds around the country that many more women are calling for help,” she says. The national group gave $3 million to 21,000 women this year.

It's difficult to untangle whether the demand for abortion or the demand for abortion subsidies has grown. “There are women who are already poor,” Poggi says, “and then women falling into poverty who may have been able to cover the cost before.”

Oliver, 25, says her Richmond group got “six or seven serious inquiries a month over the summer before things started getting bad.” Now, she says, “we're getting three phone calls a day.”

The project typically gives money to poor, young, single women who already have children. Recent callers say lost jobs and reduced hours have compounded the challenges posed by transportation barriers and the need for child care during appointments. And that doesn't include the cost of the procedure itself.

A first trimester abortion in Richmond costs between $300 and $400, Oliver says. In Virginia, abortions can be performed in a clinic up to 13 weeks and six days. After that, the procedure must be performed in a hospital for upward of $1,700.

For women who are facing a hospital procedure, the Richmond Reproductive Freedom Project helps pay for women to travel to Philadelphia, Atlanta, North Carolina or Washington, D.C., where later-term abortions are legal.

Oliver's group doesn't distribute money to everyone who calls the project's hotline. First it tries to help women find ways to pay for themselves. That means suggesting alternate plans such as pawning their couches and TVs, securing pay day loans or prioritizing which bills can go unpaid longest.

It may sound grim to consider that set of tradeoffs, but to Oliver, “the thing that's grim is that women can't afford to have [abortions].”

Could a poor economy translate into an increase in the abortion rate? At least one report says that's possible. A 2005 study released by Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health research organization, indicated that 73 percent of women who got abortions chose to do so because they could not afford a baby.

Then again, the market shift may not translate to an increase in abortion quite so tidily, says Jill Abbey, director of the Richmond Medical Center for Women. She says it's difficult to see a solid trend emerging as to whether more women are terminating pregnancies. Her clinic performs roughly 250 procedures a month, and compared with last year, she saw decreases in September and November, but an increase in October.

Abbey says she could even envision a scenario where abortions fall off. With the recognition of the financial crisis still fairly fresh, Abbey says people may be falling into a mindset of “it's harder for me to get $300 today, so I'll just put it off.”

In the meantime, Oliver's organization continues to parcel out her dwindling funds to the most desperate callers. “I think that it's just going to get worse,” she says. S

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