Kalamazoo YWCA seeks tax dollars to support gender affirming, abortion care
- Kalamazoo YWCA is asking county commissioners for $100,000 for its reproductive health fund
- Among other services, the fund assists residents seeking abortion or gender-affirming care
- Republican critics in the progressive-leaning county say they will oppose the request
A West Michigan YWCA fortified its battle lines this month in the twin Michigan controversies over abortion rights and gender identity.
YWCA Kalamazoo has asked Kalamazoo County commissioners for $100,000 to support the nation’s only YWCA “comprehensive reproductive health fund.” The fund is intended to help county residents with the financial costs of accessing abortion and gender-affirming care, along with doula services. It’s the first YWCA branch in the nation to offer this care.
Such services sometimes fall outside health insurance coverage. YWCA leaders say the public dollars sought won’t directly pay for abortion services, but will help reduce the financial burden on patients, particularly people of color and other marginalized groups to cover transportation, housing, childcare and other expenses.
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The Kalamazoo organization is one of 195 YWCAs across the country — a 150-year-old nonprofit network that advocates for women with a focus on eliminating racism and social injustice. Among other services, the YWCA in Kalamazoo provides temporary shelter to victims of domestic violence and human trafficking.
Those efforts reflect an “amazing” breadth of work, said Genevieve Marnon, legislative director of Right to Life Michigan
But the fact that the YWCA is publicly proclaiming its request to help people seek abortion and gender-affirming care is purely political, she said.
“They do a lot of good,” Marnon said of the YWCA’s efforts. “So why aren't they saying ‘We need the money to pay for child care, transportation, mailing costs, etc.?’
“In my opinion, this is intentionally to try to force the commission to declare their allegiance to abortion,” she said.
At least two county commissioners in the progressively leaning county (Joe Biden won 58 percent of the presidential vote in 2020) already are saying “no” to the request.
Republican commissioners Jeff Heppler and Wendy Mazer told Bridge Michigan they expect opposition to grow as more people learn about the YWCA’s proposal.
Whatever residents’ personal stance on abortion, “what I've been hearing is that people don't want taxpayer dollars to go toward abortions,” said Mazer, who last year was endorsed by Kalamazoo Right to Life.
The county already struggles to pay for basic services such as the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices and the YWCA request is “outside the (role of) government,” long-time commissioner Heppler said.
But Commission Chair John Taylor, a Democrat who describes himself as “staunchly pro-choice,” said he’s likely to support the request, as long as it doesn’t run afoul of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding through Medicaid for most abortions.
It won’t, Demetrias Wolverton, interim chief of staff for the Kalamazoo YWCA, told Bridge.
The YWCA reproductive fund uses private donations to help patients pay for abortion and gender-affirming care, such as hormone therapy, said Wolverton, whose pronoun is they. Taxpayer dollars pay only for “practical supports,” such as housing, transportation and postage for mailing documents that may be required to change gender identities on driver’s licenses, state ID cards, and other documents.
According to the YWCA, about 6 percent of its budget last year paid for supportive services; 52 percent and 34 percent, respectively, paid for gender-affirming care and abortion services, according to the YWCA’s presentation to the commissioners. Gender-affirming care may cover hormone replacement therapy and gender-neutral swimwear and other clothing, Wolverton said.
It does not cover gender-affirmation surgery, they said.
The fund also covers post exposure prophylaxis, a drug, taken for a month, that can prevent HIV if a person has been exposed to the virus.
For now, the fund assists only county residents, but the YWCA is considering expanding it to others, Wolverton said in a media call the day after the commissioners' last meeting.
In the same meeting that the YWCA made its request, commissioners heard several constituent voicemails criticizing it, with some calling abortion immoral and against God’s will.
“The culture of death has snowballed … Please don't be a part of the culture of death. Instead, be the commission that leaves a legacy of life,” one caller said.
Adults, teens served
The award, if granted, is part of a growing trend of local governments helping to give equitable access to abortion care in a post-Roe world in which more than a dozen states no longer allow abortion and others severely restrict it, including recent battles over access to the abortion pill, mifepristone. (In Michigan, voters passed a ballot proposal last November establishing a right to abortion under the state’s constitution.)
Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down federal protections for abortions last summer, “barriers (to) care have only become greater, and this is simply unacceptable,” the YWCA’s Wolverton said.
Even with abortion being legal in Michigan, Wolverton said reproductive care can be financially out of reach for many county residents.
“In the midst of these attacks, we are making clear that Kalamazoo County will remain a safe and compassionate place for people to get care that they need without facing any financial barriers.”
The Kalamazoo YWCA began reproductive funding in 2021 with a $43,900 grant from the county. That launched the program, which now also receives other donations.
In 2022 — its first full year — the fund provided primarily abortion and gender-affirming care to more than 220 Kalamazoo County residents, according to the YWCA.
Most services were for people between 18 and 35 years old, with about 10 percent of the funds going to people under 18. Another 10 percent were for people older than 55, according to data provided to Bridge.
About half of those served were people of color and three in five had an annual income less than $24,600, according to the YWCA.
YWCA Kalamazoo declined to release its 2022 operating budget. Wolverton said the numbers for its reproductive fund have not yet been audited, and county funds are only a part of a larger budget that includes private gifts and foundation grants.
While the fund is now limited to county residents, YWCA leaders say they are in an “exploratory phase” to determine whether the fund ultimately could serve residents elsewhere.
The county board, made of six Democrats and three Republicans, will likely vote in September or October on the budget request.
“Though it can seem like a controversial issue — and of course there is controversy — most people support abortion access,” said Jenny Dodson Mistry, vice president of programs and partnerships at the National Institute for Reproductive Health, a New York-based advocacy group.
In support of the Kalamazoo request, the National Institute for Reproductive Health, a New York City-based nonprofit, told county commissioners of 16 local governments across the nation that earmarked nearly $9 million in funds for abortion care in 2022.
“When advocates are able to explain the important role that abortion funds play, especially in these cities that are largely progressive, their residents and their elected officials really support this. We do sometimes see opposition, but it's rare that it comes from residents,” Dodson said.
Among the organizations that benefit from the Kalamazoo reproductive health fund are Planned Parenthood of Michigan, because patients may need transportation or other services to access abortion or other reproductive care at a Planned Parenthood clinic.
Wolverton was joined on the media call by Paula Thornton Greear, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Michigan, who said the organization is “incredibly proud to provide high quality sexual and reproductive health care and education to nearly 60,000 Michiganders each year.”
Greear said Michigan in many ways “is leading the fight, not only to restore reproductive rights, but (to) expand access to the full spectrum of reproductive and sexual health care.”
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