How Democratic Socialists Helped Propel Abortion Funds to Record Fundraising Levels

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Clinic escorts Stacey Spiehler and Sarah Roberts walk back to their posts outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization clinic in Jackson, Mississippi. 

It was an ambitious goal. After raking in more than $1.7 million last year during the post-inauguration progressive surge, the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) had decided to shoot for $2 million in this year’s annual Bowl-a-Thon fundraiser.

The NNAF, which is made up of about 70 member organizations that provide direct funding and logistical support to women seeking abortions, had a week and half before the April 30 fundraising deadline. The national tally was less than $900,000, and it looked as though what activists had termed the “Trump Bump” of 2017 may have already reached its peak. “Complacency is always something that the pro-choice movement is fighting against,” Lindsay Rodriguez, NNAF’s communications and digital organizing manager and Bowl-a-Thon coordinator, said at the time. “People are exhausted. … Right now, we are really hoping and pushing to meet $1 million. Over a million is still going to be really successful.”

But as the last week of fundraising began, an anonymous donor offered to match all money raised in the remaining days, an announcement that, along with weeks of organizing by members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), helped NNAF scrape past their $2 million goal and set a Bowl-a-Thon record. As conservative state legislatures emboldened by the Trump administration continue to enact severe abortion restrictions, and with the administration itself piling on with its recent proposal for a domestic version of the “Global Gag Rule,” the reproductive-rights activism that marked 2017 still appears to be going strong.


THE NNAF NATIONAL BOWL-A-THON has served as an annual fundraising event for nearly a decade. Activists form teams and, using their personal networks to raise money for specific abortion funds, “compete” against one another to make it onto the leaderboard. This year, 47 abortion funds in 33 states participated, supported by teams that celebrate with bowling, roller-skating, or other parties. Team names often take on the same irreverently feminist humor as roller derby aliases: This year, among the scores of teams, there was A Womb of One’s Own, Raiders of the Lost Menarche, Public Cervix Announcement, and Nobody Puts Baby in the Gutter. There was also Proletariat Puppers for Accessible Aborktions (more about “bork” here), a team made up of dogs (and their owners) from the Democratic Socialists of America.

DSA chapters had helped raise money for NNAF in years past—in fact, NNAF is one of the few external organizations that the national DSA does fundraising for, and is by far the largest-scale effort in terms of money and mobilization. Kim Varela-Broxson, a member of the DSA chapter in Austin, Texas, got in touch with the national organization’s Socialist Feminist Working Group to help spread the word to other chapters that might be interested in or already were fundraising for the Bowl-a-Thon. 

In Pittsburgh—where two DSA-supported women candidates unseated incumbent legislators in the May 15 Democratic primary—DSA members Dara Levy-Bernstein and Matt Rubin formed a team to take advantage of the thousands who follow their “Dog Caucus” Twitter account, a lighthearted account they created for DSA members to share photos of their dogs.  

Levy-Bernstein and Rubin say that DSA involvement in abortion access is important for countering the impression that many on the left have of democratic socialists as “Bernie bros” uninterested in prioritizing issues like reproductive rights or racial justice. “I think that sometimes in reproductive justice work, there are a lot of men that are recognizing that this is work that we should let women lead on,” Rubin says. “But there’s a tendency to let ‘leading on it’ actually mean ‘doing all the work.’ Those are two different things.” Rubin devoted much of his energy to recruiting team members, especially men, and he (and his dog, Rosa Luxembork) raised about $1,000 for two different teams. 

To determine which abortion fund their dogs’ team would work for, Levy-Bernstein says they looked at states with the most restrictive abortion laws and the smallest DSA presences. They decided on the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund (MRFF), the only abortion fund in a state with just one clinic and a 15-week abortion ban that was signed by Governor Phil Bryant in March.

“We certainly need the help,” says Laurie Bertram Roberts, MRFF’s executive director. “People outside of Mississippi raise so much money in areas that don’t need it as badly as Mississippi, and we struggle to raise money every year. States like New York that have public funding for abortion [through Medicaid] raise boatloads of cash, but we don’t have that.” 

In 2017, MRFF had raised more than $10,000, and Bertram Roberts hadn’t been sure they could match the so-called Trump Bump, or what she has termed the Year of “Oh Sh** Trump Got Elected.” She says she struggled this year to get as many donors using her usual networks. “I had a harder time this year,” she says. “There’s just a lot happening. Some people are just stretched thin, and frankly fatigued. … There are a lot of things to donate to.” 

Some on the left have been worried that such lethargy would set in before the fall’s midterm elections, even as conservative state governments from Mississippi to Nebraska and Texas to Ohio take cues from the Trump administration’s efforts to limit access to contraception and abortion. For its part, Planned Parenthood, which under the leadership of Cecile Richards transformed into one of the nation’s most powerful political-organizing groups, has been showing no signs of slowing down. Its membership has increased to more than 11 million since Trump’s election, and this July it will host a training camp in Detroit for more than 3,000 volunteers. The recently proposed gag rule from the Trump administration, which would bar health-care organizations that receive Title X federal family-planning funds from providing abortions or referring women to abortion clinics, will likely only further energize Planned Parenthood’s base of supporters.

Though abortion funds and Planned Parenthood for the most part share the same goal, the latter’s outsize place in the reproductive-rights world can stifle attempts by activists to find money for direct services. In conservative states like Mississippi, this challenge can also be cultural. “People don’t want to come out publicly as supporters of the abortion fund, even if they’re known to be pro-choice, because then people will think they’re pro-abortion,” Bertram Roberts says, adding that they may be more likely to donate to Planned Parenthood than to a fund that directly pays for abortions.

But thanks to the outside support from DSA, MRFF and its volunteer staff of five made the top 20 list of funds for the first time. When Bertram Roberts saw how much money the DSA members were raising, she upped her goal of $10,000 to $20,000. And the money kept coming in, bringing MRFF’s total to nearly $34,000.

The total NNAF pool a week before the deadline had just passed $1 million when news came about the anonymous matching donor. The announcement provided an even bigger boost at Bowl-a-Thon events that extended a few days into May. Finally, on May 5, the total hit $2 million. “It was a massive momentum changer for us,” Rodriguez of NNAF says. “I was obsessively refreshing the page until it happened.”

Wealthy anonymous donors swooping in at the last minute to save the day is hardly unwelcome, but spreading the grassroots-fundraising wealth to regions most affected by federal and state policies offers people on the left one way to maintain political momentum in 2018. “For most people, accessing abortion is not just a choice of whether it should be legal or not,” Rodriguez says. “Even though it feels really exhausting and hard to show up all the time, giving money directly to the people who are most likely to be at the center of what is happening is often how to make your money go farther.”

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