Go Deeper Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Women's Medical Fund

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Women’s Medical Fund

Posted April 27th, 2020

During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.

In this episode, FringeArts Community Engagement Manager Tenara Calem chats with Elicia Gonzales, Executive Director of the Women’s Medical Fund. They discuss the nuanced ways in which abortion needs and access are impacted by the pandemic, and what our community can do to help.  Check out their websiteTwitter and Facebook to learn more, and take a look at the Women’s Medical Fund’s upcoming events here.

Tenara: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Tenara Calem and I’m the Community Engagement Manager here at FringeArts in the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic. Many of us, particularly those of us in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic external disruptions. I can’t speak for any of our listeners, but social distancing measures have made me personally think long and hard about how to engage communities when we can’t be in the same room together. One thing that FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our audiences with our artists and community partners through this podcast. So during the global Coronavirus pandemic, you can expect more frequent episodes of Happy Hour on the Fringe. These episodes will range in topics from how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. We hope that everyone, our listeners and those they care about, remains safe, healthy and positive during this time. We’re committed to continuing our work in whatever way we can while prioritizing the safety of our city. In the meantime, you can check out our website for updates to our public programing schedule. Be well, be safe. And as always, enjoy our fascinating conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.

Elicia, welcome to the podcast. Can you say for all of our wonderful listeners where you work and what you do.

Elicia: Yeah, I’m the Executive Director at Women’s Medical Fund, which is the largest and oldest abortion fund in the country.

Tenara: Nice, nice. So we have already seen how abortions have been determined as nonessential medical surgeries in the COVID-19 pandemic in certain states. So what does that mean when an abortion is determined as nonessential?

Elicia: Well first of all, the World Health Organization and the American College of Gynecologists are all stating that abortion is essential. Abortion is healthcare and so we’re just trying to do our part to get the word out to elected and others to remind folks that abortion is in fact essential. So luckily in PA, we have a governor who is very much in support of ensuring folks have access to the full range of reproductive healthcare including abortion, so we are absolutely okay in PA but we have seen other states trying to use this pandemic to curb that access. So it’s really despicable. What that means is that you are putting people into potentially greater poverty, you’re potentially causing a person to carry an unwanted pregnancy, and you are really, uh–I would say enacting violence upon communities.

Tenara: So you have said to me before that abortion needs rise in times of crisis, particularly, you know, you were saying that it’s likely that abortion needs will rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about why that is?

Elicia: Yeah, so we are seeing both the need for abortions rise and also the need for abortion funding rise. And a lot of it just has to do with, uh, compromised access to birth control. So a lot of reproductive health facilities are having to somewhat limit their appointments, just to, you know, for safe measures for both patients and workers alike. And so folks may or may not have a delay of sorts for accessing reproductive health care such as birth control. And so with that, we know that there will be a spike. We are also anticipating that there may or may not be a increase in sexual activity when people are home more often, you know, with a little bit more time on their hands, if you will. And so that combined with the compromised access to reproductive healthcare, we are anticipating that there will absolutely be a spike.

Tenara: And compromised access to healthcare has a lot to do also with just like people losing that access, or just like when things are closed? Like, what contributes to that?

Elicia: Yeah it’s both/and. Compromised because there is going to be, and there already has been some reproductive healthcare facilities that are having to have ore limited services, so folks aren’t able to actually access it. But also, if folks are having to pay out of pocket for birth control and folks are not working right now, they might be foregoing birth control methods that they would otherwise be paying for. So I would say overall, all of the above.

Tenara: So, how is Women’s Medical Fund’s work affected by the current crisis?

Elicia: Yeah I would say on the positive side of things, we’ve been talking about what it mean for our work to continue since the first week of March. At the time, we thought that it felt very alarmist and slightly paranoid to be thinking about a plan for working remotely. Of course we now realize it happened right on time, and so luckily, we had already had a plan to be able to have the helpline, which is the piece that seemed the most crucial. We were able to set up a system of having that operate at the same hours. And so our helpline counselors are still fast at work offering the helpline 5 days a week, which is amazing. All of our work is moving steady as it goes. I would say the tricky and challenging part is that we have already seen a huge spike in financial need requested. So before folks would call us and say, ‘I was quoted $500 for my abortion. I can bring to my appointment $150 but I need help with the rest of it.’ And now we’re having people calling and saying ‘I have no money. I’m not working. The other person involved in the pregnancy is not working. Like, I have nothing.’ And so, a couple weeks ago, we saw that the helpline ran out of funding in just 50 minutes. So we’re expecting that the financial need isn’t going to lessen anytime soon.

Tenara: The World Health Organization is saying that abortion is, you know, healthcare and is necessary during a pandemic. What is the like–maybe this question is kind of too broad. But like, can you talk a little bit about the relationship between reproductive care and public health and community wellness and why we have such a hard time, particularly in this country, in making that connection?

Elicia: I think that the Antis have just done like a really solid job of bastardizing abortion as this bad thing that happens, you know? And we always say that abortion has been happening since the beginning of time, you know? As long as people have been engaging in sex, people have been having abortions, but it’s just gotten so distorted and really separated out that it’s just seen as this special thing. When in fact, it’s really just healthcare. It’s safer than going to the dentist. It can be as quick as getting a haircut or less. Actually, it’s faster than a haircut. So the separation, I think, speaks to the overall broken health system in our society and the fact that people are really all about putting profits over people and really concerned about trying to increase their bottom line. So we see an already weakened health system becoming more weak when you consider abortion as part of that. I just think it’s just been really overly politicized and weaponized as a thing that folks shouldn’t be doing. And in relation to that, we’ve actually seen a really big increase in self-reported stigma. So several years ago folks weren’t asking the questions they are now, but because the Antis have done such a horrible job, or a great job, depending on who you ask, of getting their messaging out there, they are able to seep into people’s very hearts. And so people now are questioning like, ‘is my baby going to feel pain?’ And that’s just something we didn’t see before. Those are some of the ways in which we think that.

Tenara: So looking forward, how do you hope that Women’s Medical Fund’s work might transform in the, like, rebuilding era that we’re looking towards or like just rebound? Do you think that there’s gonna be a shift in the way that Women’s Medical Fund does work after the pandemic is over?

Elicia: Um, I hope so. I mean, we’re having conversations with our providers and other folks in the repro world on a fairly regular basis. We’ve seen that there’s been an uptick also in tele-health, in tele-medicine. And so we’re hoping that once folks understand that this is actually the way that you can do things, that we would be able to extend that service well beyond COVID. So that’s one of the ways we are working hard to remind people that funding abortions really is mutual aid. I think that we’ve seen a lot of folks really stepping up in really great ways to support one another, to support neighbors. There’s a lot of different mutual aid groups out there, you know, if you need food, or if you need someone to run to get your medicine, like, you know, to sign up and we can get that for you. Abortion funding is no different. We raise money from like, every day folks to then help offset that cost for folks that aren’t able to afford that abortion. So that language and that framing around ‘we are all doing this together. We aren’t relying on the government to do this. Like, this is stuff that we can do for us, by us.’ And so we’re hopeful that that kind of messaging will continue on in the future as well. And then I think in a more slightly removed way in terms of the organization and organizations plural is, we’ve also recognized that advancing racial equity means also dismantling white dominance and eradicating white professionalism, and I just saw a really great article on generosity that talked about the end of white professionalism because of COVID, and so, you’re seeing people at home trying to wrestle with their kids and showing up to Zoom meetings wearing their sweatshirts and no makeup and no hair done and still the work happens. So that I think is another promising trend that I see happening that I really hope continues on into the future because in order to do this work, we have to be able to interrogate our own infrastructure. And I think being able to see that we can show up as our whole selves and still get the job done is one way to get us there.

Tenara: Oh man. I’m really resonating with what you’re saying about white professionalism. I think that I’ve noticed that my emails to community partners really slipped out of a language that I call “nonprofit speak” after the pandemic really just shut down all operations, and was just a little bit more like, frenzied. Like, my first line in every email was ‘how are you? How’s your mom? Do you need groceries? What’s going on? Like, talk to me.’ Which, you know, it’s so necessary because it’s just, with this, obviously, everyone is talking about this. This pandemic has thrown into really sharp relief what matters, you know? And healthcare matters, obviously, and community matters. So it feels disingenuous not to forefront that in my– in my work specifically as a community engagement practitioner, when we don’t gain anything by maintaining a stranglehold on what we’ve deemed as professional behavior which is obviously very very subjective and very rooted in a lot of hegemonies.

Elicia: Yeah for sure, and I think, even just as a way to think through the ways in which capitalism has really shaped our behaviors, like we don’t need to be feeling like we are productive right now, like we’re in a pandemic. You know, like, we need to be able to be relational, we need to resort back to our basic human needs which is connectivity and relationships and supporting one another. And so I think, for me, it feels like a very promising time, at the same time that it’s tragic because I do see people’s behaviors really shifting to respond to the crisis in ways that I, I hope can continue into the future.

Tenara: Yeah, for sure. So the last question I have for you, Elicia, is how can FringeArts audiences get involved and help out Women’s Medical Fund in this time?

Elicia: Yeah, I would say one of the best ways that folks can get involved is just to make sure that abortion stays forefront in our conversations as we are talking about the economic downturn. Having folks just speak it out loud that it is going to impact people who get pregnant and don’t want to carry to term, and so for folks just to say abortion out loud to both help de-stigmatize but also to help raise awareness about abortion I think would be helpful. Of course we would love for folks to participate in our events that we have coming up. As I just described earlier, we know that there’s going to be an increased need for funding and so folks can find out about our upcoming, virtual now, funding events coming up in April and May. One of them I think is going to be really powerful is a conversation between two folks to specifically talk about self-managed abortion, and I think that that’s a really timely conversation in light of COVID. And so, we would love for folks to get involved in the short term at events, and in the long term, folks can stay connected and can organize with us both virtually and in-person once this thing passes to ensure abortion access now and always. And so folks can follow us on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. We’re just @womensmedfund. You can also find out more about us at

Tenara: Sweet. Awesome, well thank you so much Elicia for hopping on this–

Elicia: Not a problem. No thank you for lifting up this issue. I know there’s so many issues out there to talk about, so I appreciate you taking the time.

Tenara: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for listening to Happy Hour on the Fringe. We hope everyone remains safe, healthy and optimistic during these troubling times. For updates to our programing schedule, visit our website at or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat or download the FringeArts app to receive up to date information. Stay safe, stay well and don’t forget to sing “Jolene” when you wash your hands.