As the Supreme Court and surrounding states have limited abortion rights, Illinois has done the opposite. In 2019, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a law establishing abortion as a “fundamental right.” More recently, Illinois struck down a parental consent law for teens. But just getting here for the procedure can be daunting for an out-of-state woman without a reliable car or a credit card to book a hotel.
That’s where the Chicago-based Midwest Access Coalition comes in. Founded in 2014, it’s one of the earliest and most active examples of a new type of abortion rights effort: the practical support organization. With a paid staff of four and more than 200 volunteer drivers and overnight hosts, MAC helps at least 120 women a month — mostly people of color, from as far away as Georgia — with the logistics and cost of traveling to Illinois for a safe, legal abortion.
Leading the organization is Rogers Park native Diana Parker-Kafka, 39, who has been with MAC since 2016 and took over as executive director a year ago from founder Leah Greenblum. I talked to Parker-Kafka about the organization’s role, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court reversing Roe v. Wade.
What is the legality of traveling to another state for an abortion?
Currently it is not illegal for a resident of the United States to cross a border for [commerce]. You can come here from Missouri to buy and smoke weed legally. Same thing for abortion.
Some red states, like Missouri, have started discussing how to make that more difficult.
I don’t even know how they would enforce that. I think the point of talking about [enacting] such laws is to have a chilling effect. Banning travel for adults for abortion care would have a huge backlash, especially if it started hitting white people.
An interesting statistic about traveling out of state is how much more expensive that gets.
Oh yeah. Women from Texas [where abortion is banned six weeks after conception and soon will be illegal altogether] who come here seven weeks pregnant or even six weeks and two days pregnant pay for a procedure — one that might have cost them $300 before — the $300, plus $500 in gas, plus $300 for a hotel room.
How does your group differ from organizations such as the Chicago Abortion Fund?
Abortion funds typically focus on just helping pay for the procedure. Some do practical support, but there’s only about five throughout the country that do what I call “accompaniment.” We will talk one on one with you from the beginning until you get back home. We mostly partner with abortion funds to fund the procedure. But we do have a small bucket of funding for when a client has exhausted the abortion funds’ capacities and delaying that procedure further would make it even more expensive and inaccessible.
What kind of logistical support does MAC provide, exactly?
We started this hotline program, this “accompaniment program,” that was built basically on the needs that people brought to us — for instance, making sure that they had childcare set up, because most of our clients are parents. So we pay for childcare. We have on occasion provided that childcare ourselves. We pay for medicine, we pay for toiletries, we pay for their food. And we are basically available for them 24/7 on our hotline if an emergency comes up. Oftentimes, people’s childcare plans drop. Or a flight is canceled, if we’re in the middle of a tornado or snowstorm. And just working with people on all those last-minute emergencies — lots of flat tires on the way here. When you’re not connected to resources and you don’t have any money, things get very, very difficult.
Even when traveling a short distance.
Even within the city. The city is huge. We support people within the city that aren’t near a train or bus line. Or they’ve never really needed to leave their community and have no idea how to do that. We get people from the suburbs and from the South Side, which is like 40 minutes away sometimes from a clinic. And that’s maybe three buses and a train, or an Uber ride. But that Uber ride is going to cost them 50 bucks, so we will do that for them, or it could be a simple volunteer [driver].
I read in your newsletter about Elevated Access, a new group based in Illinois of volunteer pilots who fly rural women to providers.
One of our super-tech volunteers is a pilot, and he asked us to help him get this organization off the ground. Medical flights have been happening for decades for people traveling for care for cancer, those sorts of things, but he wanted to focus on people traveling for abortion. Because the pilot community is very white, conservative, and male, he has to recruit from specific pools of pilots, like women pilots, LGBTQ+ pilots. And so he asked us for our [volunteer] training materials to modify them for pilots. I went on a test flight to make sure we knew how to communicate to clients what it would be like.
How did you get involved with health care access activism?
After college, I came back [to Rogers Park] and I was figuring out my role in the world: How can I feel at least productive and helpful and have a purpose in life? There was a street medic training for protesters at the NATO conference [in Chicago] in 2012. And through that training, I met a lot of activists that were also focused on health care and well-being for their communities. We started doing health and wellness trainings for different organizations, focusing on protecting yourself if you’re at a protest or an action. Then, in 2016, [MAC was] starting to see a lot more women coming in from out of state for abortions who needed assistance, and they wanted help building out that program. That’s when I came in.
Could Illinois ever lose its status as a haven state?
I think the state Supreme Court is a just one-Democrat majority, and so that is an election that’s going to be really important for people to show up to. People call Illinois a safe state. I call it a “destination state” because we are not safe. Conservatives are not going to be happy just with Roe falling. They are going to go after everything. I used to tell funders I hope we are no longer needed and we can sunset this organization or switch missions, but that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.