JACKSON, Mississippi — It was nearly 4 a.m. and Laurie Bertram Roberts was lying in bed, yelling instructions to her partner and kids in the other room. Half the house was asleep, but the other half was bustling around the dimly lit kitchen, getting ready for a six-or-so-hour road trip from Jackson, Mississippi, through Memphis to Little Rock, Arkansas.
Everything seemed to be going wrong. The van they planned to take had just broken down — the wheelchair ramp got jammed and was dragging along the ground, so they had to get a much smaller rental. Arkansas and Mississippi were experiencing historic floods that would no doubt slow down the trip, the driver hadn’t been able to get his license renewed in time, and Sarah Roberts couldn’t find her vape pen. They were running late.
This wasn’t just any family road trip. Laurie's family was preparing to pick up a 25-year-old woman from school, bring her to an abortion clinic in Little Rock, stay there in a hotel for the third and fourth appointments she needed for the procedure, and drop her back home. It’s one of dozens of trips the family has made to bring women to and from abortion appointments all over the South over the last six years. They’ve mostly used their own cars or rentals, but they recently acquired what they call the “abobo bus,” a 12-seat van that women can comfortably lie down in. However, they got it cheap, and the bus keeps breaking.
“We haven’t been able to do a lot of trips lately because the abobo bus has been broken down,” Sarah, Laurie’s third-to-oldest daughter, said as she threw some last-minute items in a bag. “We did one last week for the same patient, for her first appointment, but it turned out she was 20 weeks pregnant instead of the 18 weeks they told her before. So we have to go back.”
The family runs the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, an abortion fund located in Jackson. The fund provides money, lodging, childcare, and transportation (even across state lines) for women who need help accessing abortion in a state with strict abortion laws and only one overwhelmed, underfunded abortion clinic.
For the past few decades, abortion funds have been vital for women seeking abortions in states with few abortion clinics and highly restrictive anti-abortion laws, especially low-income women and women of color. There are now over 70 funds across the country that work together to help as many women as possible overcome the legal and financial hurdles to get an abortion.
But now, as more and more states pass these laws, and as Roe v. Wade could hang in the balance of the next Supreme Court decision on abortion, the future of abortion access increasingly relies on these groups.
But the abortion funds are scrappy. They are often run by only a few people donating all of their time to the cause, and they rely nearly exclusively on unpaid, volunteer work and small, out-of-state donations of $20 or $50 at a time from people who happened to hear of them, even though many of the funds don’t have the time or money to devote to websites or ads to let people know they exist. Most of the people seeking their help, Laurie said, learn about her fund through word of mouth. One woman who called the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund found out about it from her bank teller.
“We’re talking real grassro work here. Not ‘grassroots,’ grassro — we don’t have no money for no ‘o,’ no ‘t,’ no ‘s,’” Laurie told BuzzFeed News, lying on her bed with her laptop in the middle of the night. She woke up with her kids to make sure they had everything they needed for the trip. “There are funds out here like us who have scraped by and scraped by. People are just figuring out who we all are thanks to the news, but we’ve been out here putting in the work for years on a shoestring budget.”
The Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund is a true family business, a “mom-and-pop shop,” as one of the kids referred to it. Laurie, 41, started the fund in 2013 with the help of her friend Yolanda Walker and two of Laurie’s daughters, Sarah and Kayla. In the following years, as the fund did more work, slowly every member of the family got involved.
The fund family is composed of Laurie’s seven kids — six daughters and one son, ages 16 through 24 — and her long-term partner the family calls Gbus (“Because I have the head of Jesus and the body of Buddha,” he told BuzzFeed News, asking that his real name not be used to protect his privacy).
Gbus does most of the driving, three of Laurie’s daughters act as abortion doulas — helping to guide women through the process of getting an abortion — and her son, Ajani, 17, helps with moving donations and other literal heavy lifting. A few of the kids teach sex ed and distribute contraception in the neighborhood and at fairs and events, and nearly everyone helps manage donations and do intake and case assessments of the women seeking the fund’s help.
The fund has a full board of nonfamily members and a few steady volunteers, but the vast majority of the people doing the regular work for the fund are ones Laurie gave birth to.
All this work happens out of what they refer to as the “fundshack,” a name they sometimes sing to the tune of “Love Shack” by the B-52s. The shack is a one-story, rickety, pale-green house directly across the street from a graveyard and an elementary school.
The week of the trip to Little Rock, the shack was filled to the brim with boxes of donations and covered in the aftermath of five teens and young adults sleeping in two rooms together. Every surface was covered with dishes, food wrappers, candy, stuffed animals, and crafting and cleaning supplies. Clothes and toys were strewn around the house, along with condoms, dental dams, and a wooden model of a penis to demonstrate how to use condoms. It was impossible to walk from one side of the house to the other without stepping on or over something.
In recent months, as press coverage of the fund amped up and donations started pouring in, most of the family has been sleeping in the shack on couches and on the floor, taking calls from donors and potential patients during the day, often wearing the same clothes or PJs for days in a row.
The fund used to give about $1,500 a month to women who needed help accessing abortion (an abortion in the first trimester can cost anywhere from $350 to $950, according to Planned Parenthood), but with all the national attention on abortion rights, as of a month ago, it’s doubled its budget to about $3,000 a month.
“Money is clutch right now,” Laurie said. “It’s for sad reasons, but now we can help more people, so.”
Laurie has chronic health issues that make her hypersensitive to temperature and scent and cause her to have a hard time walking or even dressing herself, so she works out of a bed in her room in the fundshack, surrounded by laptops and phones, often undressed and wrapped in a blue sheet that matches her blue eyes, her blue hair, and the blue of her walls.
Part of the reason Laurie started doing this work, and stuck with it despite her health issues, is that she has been there herself. When she was 19, she tried to get an abortion but was unable to access it because of money constraints and restrictive abortion laws in Indiana, where she was living at the time. She never ended up having an abortion.
She already had twin daughters at that point; she had given birth to them at 16 while she was still involved in her evangelical church. The second time she was pregnant, she nearly died while having a miscarriage after a Catholic hospital refused to give her the necessary miscarriage procedure because they could “still hear the heartbeat” of the fetus, Laurie said. She’s frequently spoken about this publicly to highlight the risk of relying on Catholic hospitals as the only medical care in many communities in the US, but as she is saying it, her voice still contains anger; she trails off sometimes, shaking her head in hurt and indignation.
“I went home, almost hemorrhaged to death; I had to get a blood transfusion I lost so much blood; I had to get an emergency D&C,” referring to dilation and curettage, the procedure that removes the contents of the uterus after a miscarriage or abortion to help stop the bleeding and prevent infection. “I’d gone into shock. I mean, it was a bad experience. And they did this to me why? Because nothing could be more sacred than a 12-week fetus — not a whole-ass living woman, that’s for sure.”
At first Laurie’s kids were mostly uninvolved in the fund’s work, but that changed in 2012 when Laurie was volunteering as a clinic escort for Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, in Jackson, helping patients get past the anti-abortion protesters. Kayla and Sarah were only 14 and 15 at the time, but they were protective of their mother, whose health was deteriorating.
“My mom tried to get us to stay home, me and my sister Kayla, and we were like, ‘You know we’re not gonna let you be out there with those crazies, right?’” Sarah told BuzzFeed News. So they became clinic escorts as well.
Then, when Kayla was 15, she got an abortion. After a while doing that, they started to try to think of other ways they could help women in the same situation.
“We started to notice that women keep coming to the clinic and saying they might have just enough money for this appointment, but they don’t have enough for another appointment,” Sarah told BuzzFeed News.
“We noticed that they had to sleep in their cars because they couldn’t afford a hotel, or they’d leave their kids in their cars for hours while they were in their appointments because they couldn’t afford childcare,” Sarah said.
They decided to start the fund. Laurie was president of the Mississippi chapter of the National Organization for Women at the time, and they started the fund as a “line item on NOW’s budget,” Laurie and Sarah said. At first they just collected funds through a Facebook group Laurie set up and used her connections with clinics and other organizations to help with appointments, only funding about one person a month.
Laurie is transparent about using a portion of the fund’s donations to pay the volunteers, including the family, when they can so that they can continue to devote most of their time to the fund. But this work is Laurie’s whole life, and it doesn’t pay the bills on its own.
The family receives child support, food stamps, and other financial assistance from the government to help Laurie take care of everyone while they all run the fund. To subsidize that and the inconsistent flow of donations, the whole family has various “side hustles,” Laurie said, like service industry work, selling jewelry on Etsy, selling candy, and doing yard work or maintenance jobs. So she understands her callers’ financial predicaments, because they are also hers.
“I feel like a lot of professional activists have distance from their work, but this is our life,” Laurie said. “We’ve faced a lot of the same problems as the community we are serving.
“When someone calls me and is like, they don’t have any food stamps or their food stamps don’t come for another week, I know exactly what that is; I might be living that same reality at the very moment they’re calling me,” Laurie said. “Or when they’re like, ‘I’m down to my last two Pampers,’ I know what that is. I been there, done that.”
It is partially because of this empathy that the fund prefers to pay to put its patients up in hotels rather than provide them with homestays with volunteers. Laurie and other abortion fund workers said that while many volunteers who house women seeking abortions have their hearts in the right place, they can often end up being invasive — wanting to get to know the patient, cooking them dinner, asking them questions about their situation, and telling them about their own abortion stories. The day before an abortion, patients often just want to lie in bed, eat comfort food, watch TV, and not think about it, but as houseguests, they often feel they have to humor their hosts.
“They’re not thinking fully about what the patient needs; does she have kids with her? Is she even going to feel comfortable being at your white upper-middle-class house? Are you an elitist fuck who is gonna act funky when you have poor people of color showing up at your house?” Laurie said, referring to some of the volunteers she has encountered in her work.
“Nobody needs your white-savior shit on the day you’re about to have an abortion; no one needs your white advice,” Laurie continued. “No one needs your shit, Karen, or your potato salad with fucking raisins in it.”
“Shroom’s in the car; let’s go,” mumbled Gbus, the driver and Laurie’s partner, whom some of the kids call their stepdad. Aolani, 16 (whom Gbus has called Mushroom since she was little because she glommed onto him like a mushroom on a tree), was already in the car with her earphones in, hugging a pillow. She’s an abortion doula in training, there to help out her sister Sarah, 22, who is also a doula in training, and to navigate for Gbus.
Laurie yelled goodbye from her bed, Sarah ran through the rain to join them, and Gbus sped off.
The sun rose as they did the nearly three-hour drive to A.’s town in northern Mississippi. They listened to stand-up comedy and country music (“Dolly Parton is queen in our family,” Aolani said) while Gbus sped dangerously fast down the nearly empty highways, smoking Newports out the window and chatting with whoever was awake. By the time they reached the town to pick up A., the young woman they were taking to get an abortion in Little Rock, it was light out. (A. asked that her name not be used because she didn’t tell her friends or family she was pregnant.)
A., 25, hadn’t slept all night. She was finishing school and had walked in the graduation a few weeks before but hadn’t yet completed her degree. Her pregnancy had occupied her brain and made her sick for months; she suffered from severe, chronic morning sickness that left her bedridden and unable to eat anything but bread for weeks. Because of this, she missed many classes, as well as the opportunity to start the advanced internship necessary to graduate. Before the trip, she had been up all night preparing the materials to attempt to beg the university and the internship program to let her join late so she could get her degree and leave Mississippi after the summer.
A. knew the group in the car already; they had done the trip to Little Rock together the week before, when she was originally supposed to have the abortion, before the clinic told her she was too far along for a standard procedure and had to come back the following week for a two-day, second-trimester procedure.
At this point, so much had gone wrong, A. didn’t believe that the abortion was ever going to happen. She did not want to have the baby; she had been trying to get an abortion since she was six weeks pregnant, but the man who had gotten her pregnant kept saying he would pay for the procedure, then not showing up to drive her the more than three hours to the clinic. He would cancel the appointments, she said, and would lie about having given the money to the clinic in advance. By the time she realized he was never planning to pay, she was in her second trimester and the procedures were too expensive for what she had saved up.
“He’s a typical Southern older guy, abusive,” A. said whenever he came up. “He just refused to let me go. But he was never in the picture; we weren’t together.”
Until she found the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, A. had basically resigned herself to having the baby against her will, she told BuzzFeed News. She told her university adviser several times she wouldn’t be able to finish school, and though she hadn’t told her family, she knew she would have to give up on her internship and go home if she had the baby. She also knew that if she had it, the man would force himself into her life.
But then she found Laurie through the National Network of Abortion Funds website and gave her a call.
“It wasn’t until I talked to [Sarah] and Laurie on the phone and she said to me, ‘No matter what, until this is taken care of, we’ve got you,’ that I realized I had to stop saying to myself, ‘OK, I’m just gonna have to have a kid,’” A. said. “Because I had no options. I was literally like, do I just start drinking bleach? What can I do to stop this? I just want my life back.”
She and Laurie spoke on the phone for three hours, she said. What she liked about Laurie is she didn’t make A. feel pitied or guilty: “She made me feel like something fucked up had happened to me and that she was gonna help me fix it.”
And Laurie did. The fund doesn’t always cover the whole cost of the abortion as well as food and lodging. A.’s procedure cost about $2,000, and the housing and transportation for the two trips cost more than $800. But thanks to the recent uptick in donations, they had the money to cover it all.
The fund swooped in just in time — a week later and it would have been too late. The Little Rock Family Planning Services clinic doesn’t perform abortions after 21 weeks from the patient’s last period, and next month a new state law is scheduled to go into effect that would ban abortions after 18 weeks. This law could be blocked in court for a time, but similar bans in other states have been allowed by judges to go into effect, so nothing is certain.
By about noon, they had finally made it. The clinic only allows patients to have one person with them, so Sarah accompanied A. This is one of the most important roles of an abortion doula for women who don’t have family, friends, or partners to go with them. When they’re doing this work, Sarah and her sisters essentially act in place of those people but with more information; waiting in the waiting room with the patient, helping them check in, hearing their concerns, answering their questions, and comforting them if necessary. They also receive the instructions of care alongside the patient so that if the patient forgets or gets overwhelmed, the doula can help her with the medication schedule or tell her what she can and can’t do before and after the abortion.
These instructions are particularly elaborate in the case of second-trimester abortions like A.’s. During the first procedure, the clinic workers inserted sterilized pieces of seaweed into A.’s cervix to help soften it and gave A. a sheet of paper containing instructions for dos and don’ts before the procedure — “You must not eat or drink after midnight,” “Take ibuprofen even if you’re not in pain” — and a complicated medication schedule that the clinicians had highlighted in different colors to help A. understand it.
Throughout the evening after the first appointment and the morning before the second, Sarah woke A. up at the necessary intervals to give her the scheduled medication and painkillers and to give her anything else that could help with the pain, like a sock filled with rice that could be microwaved into a heating pad.
“I’m so glad you’re here, honestly,” A. told Sarah the next day. “I would’ve taken all the pills at the wrong times and just slept through the schedule. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without you.”
Every member of Laurie’s family came to this work in a different way. Laurie grew up “a pin-wearing, March for Life–going pro-lifer,” as she put it, but came to devote her life to abortion rights slowly over the years. It started when her mother had a miscarriage. Laurie saw the fetus and realized that the evangelical Christian church she belonged to and the anti-abortion media she consumed misrepresented what a fetus looked like; it didn’t look like a shrunken-down baby to her; it looked like a tadpole. When she later moved from the white evangelical church to a black evangelical church, she said that she felt she was no longer being told what to think and that she could explore her own ideas and opinions. And those opinions, she eventually realized, were fundamentally opposed to those of her church.
By the time Laurie enrolled at Jackson State University as an undergraduate political science major in the mid-2000s, she’d already had all seven of her kids. Younger students started coming to her for help when they got pregnant by accident, asking her for guidance.
“I would always tell them, ‘You have three options. What do you want to do?’ It’s not like I was full-on finding people abortion funding, but it was the first time I had the real realization that it was really important for people in that situation to hear that it was OK for them to have three options,” Laurie said. “Nobody ever said that to me when I was growing up, nobody ever said to me, ‘It’s OK if you become a mom; you can still go to college. It’s also OK if you decide not to.’”
At that point, Laurie was already involved in some political action volunteer work, but soon she became even more committed and ended up leaving school to focus on her activism. She started doing doula work for abortion and childbirth, joined the board of the ACLU, became a member of NOW in 2009, was made NOW Mississippi’s secretary in 2010, and then, two years later, became president of the chapter.
By 2015, Laurie wanted to make the fund her full-time occupation. She resigned as president of NOW and, with the help of her children and Yolanda Walker, applied for incorporation for the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund.
As the fund became Laurie’s primary occupation and started getting more calls and donations, her health started deteriorating even more. Her family was always around and saw how hard she was working up close. They started taking over many of her duties.
“Sometimes it’s really intense; sometimes it brings me back to when I had an abortion, and that’s intense, but then you realize you’re helping somebody with something they really need,” Kayla told BuzzFeed News, speaking from the fundshack before her siblings left on the trip.
Sarah expressed the same sentiment in the car in Arkansas: “It can be hard, it can be stressful, but you’re helping people, you know?”
The trips frequently involve waking up at obscene hours and sitting in the car for half the day. The timing is unpredictable — if a woman is feeling like she can’t travel after the procedure, they often have to stay a day longer than scheduled — and dealing with anti-abortion protesters yelling at them and the patients can be stressful. They know all the regular protesters in Jackson and are no longer afraid of them, but the ones in neighboring states are an unknown. Most protesters stick to shaming or posing as clinic escorts to try to convince women not to get abortions, but ever since the shooting at the Colorado Springs abortion clinic in 2015, the family’s been a bit more on edge.
Because of Kayla's experience having an abortion at 15, she now works as an abortion doula to teenagers. She can identify with them, she said; she can speak with authority about what they’re going through and tell them what she learned from her experience getting an abortion as a teen. Both Mississippi and Arkansas require consent from parents for a minor to have an abortion. Kayla understands the teens’ most common fear: that their parents will be disappointed in them.
“I always tell them, ‘Baby, even I thought my mom would be disappointed with me once upon a time, and look what she does.’ People make mistakes, and a lot of the time. parents know that,” Kayla told BuzzFeed News, sitting on the fundshack couch.
“But no matter what they say, in that situation you can’t listen to what people think about you. You really gotta focus on yourself and decide if you’re making a good decision for you; that’s what I like to tell ’em,” Kayla continued, flipping her new magenta ponytail extensions. “‘Yeah, you’re underage and your parents might be taking care of you, but this is for you. Do you feel like you are making the right decision for you?’ And if they answer yes, then I say, ‘Then don’t let nobody tell you otherwise.’”
The family has big plans for the fund. Every time they speak about the future, they add a new goal: They want to train 20 new volunteers in the coming months; they want to do a tour around neighboring states to recruit and train potential drivers; they want to fix up the house and make it a real headquarters where they can host trainings and “self-care nights”; they want to convert the back room — currently completely filled with cardboard boxes — into a place that can house women traveling to Jackson for an abortion; they want to buy and renovate a nearby apartment building to house more women and volunteers.
“There is this prevailing thought in people that is like, ‘You can’t just throw money at a problem.’ But in this instance, money is exactly what you should be throwing at the fucking problem; you should throw all the money it takes to throw at the problem until the problem is solved,” Laurie said. “This is an immediate money problem, and until we get these laws turned back around, this is what people need to be paying attention to. And they finally are, and that’s great. Welcome.”
The morning of her second and last appointment, A. was in immense pain.
“It feels like 10 periods,” she moaned, doubled over as they drove to the clinic, her head resting on the back of Gbus’s seat, breathing heavily. “I feel like I’m dying.”
“Just focus on being calm and what a relief this will all be when it’s all over,” Sarah said, rubbing A.’s back as they pulled into the clinic. The anti-abortion protesters were there again. This time one of them had a bullhorn. “And if you want, I will punch these fuckers.”
When the car reached the front of the clinic, A. nearly threw herself out, stumbling toward the clinic door. Sarah hopped out of the other side, helping A. into the clinic. She didn’t have her ID to check in, so Sarah went to fetch it, but A.’s face was pale and sallow. She was sweating and tears were running down her face. She was about to faint or throw up or both. The clinic rushed her to the procedure room without checking her in.
No one is allowed in the room for the actual procedure, so Aolani and Sarah waited outside, crouching down to read rocks that people had placed outside the clinic’s parking lot, painted with bright colors and phrases reading, “This clinic stays open,” “We will not go back,” and “Abortion is a loving option.”
A man walked over to them and asked them what they were looking at. When they explained, he shook his head.
“Fuck that shit; I knew that sorta thing was going on here,” he said, referring to the clinic performing abortions. “I’m married, but, you know, a man has needs. But if I got someone knocked up, I wouldn’t let her do that, with the heartbeat and shit; it’s just wrong.”
Aolani and Sarah smiled sarcastically until he walked away.
On the drive home, Sarah played music, Aolani listened to her earphones, and A. slept in the front seat.
“There’s always one song we play on long drives,” Sarah said, nudging her sister and pulling out her earphones.
She put on “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” by Shania Twain. The family sang along. ●