Natalie St. Clair is an abortion travel agent.
The 24-year-old Texan helps women navigate the roads (and the rules) to get the procedure they desperately need and want.
It’s a busy — and difficult job — thanks to concerted efforts to gut access to abortion for Texas' 5.4 million women of reproductive age. More than half of the 40-plus abortion clinics in the state closed after lawmakers passed a package of crippling regulations in 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the restrictions contained in the law, House Bill 2, last June, but the damage was done. Most of those clinics haven’t reopened.
More than 40% of Texas women lived in a county without a provider as of 2014. The average travel distance for some Texans seeking an abortion increased by 500%, from 17 to 85 miles one-way, one study of women whose closest clinics had closed found. A quarter of those women surveyed lived more than two hours — 139 miles — from the nearest provider. Wait times — and overall costs — went up. And those who can get to a clinic face other hurdles still on the books, including the required 24-hour waiting period before having the procedure.
All that has made St. Clair’s job as operations manager at Fund Texas Choice, a nonprofit that arranges and funds travel for women seeking abortions in the Lone Star State, all the more essential — and in demand. The average number of trips planned by Fund Texas Choice each month tripled between 2014 and 2016. In all, St. Clair estimates she planned more than 300 trips last year.
St. Clair, who joined the nonprofit as a volunteer three years ago because she was “super mad" about the passage of H.B. 2., is the organization’s sole full-time staffer. The reproductive rights advocate spoke with Refinery29 about how she uses her travel-booking skills to ensure her fellow Texans have access to abortion services.
Tell me about your job.
"If a woman needs to find a clinic or a fund to pay for the procedure, I can help. I book everything they need: bus, hotel. If they need an Uber for something, I get them an Uber. If they need to reschedule, I give them the resources. It’s a lot of texting. And faxing. As a millennial, I was not prepared to have a job full of faxing. But that’s the only way a hotel accepts for you to pay for someone else. I think that traditionally the word would be case manager, but it’s much looser than that. I’m more of a really annoying travel buddy who you can be in contact with while you get your abortion."
Why do women in Texas need an abortion travel agent?
"Traveling is always stressful, even if you’re going on a vacation. But planning an abortion in Texas is totally overwhelming. [H.B. 2] created chaos across the board for all Texans just trying to get anywhere to get an abortion. People who lived right next to a clinic would have to go four hours away to a different city in Texas, because their clinic was closed that week for some reason. It was a total mess. Understanding how the laws work is super complicated — by design. You need to find an open clinic that can take you. And it’s expensive. The average trip we plan costs $500. On top of that, women need to get time off of work; if they’re students, time off of school; find child care that they can afford, coordinate bringing a companion. Just having travel checked off that very long list is a relief.”
How do women find out about your services?
“Clinics and abortion funds that help cover the cost of the procedure refer women to us. We’re also pretty Google-able. Some people call us having no idea where they can get an abortion. A lot of times, someone has an appointment in a town that is not the closest one to them. We’ll say, ‘Actually there’s one that’s 200 miles closer. You’ll have to travel way less and it will be a lot easier.’ Once they’ve made their appointment, we book the travel."
Can you walk us through what happens when someone contacts you for this first time?
"The first thing I ask is: How do you plan on getting there? If they say, ‘I have no clue how to get there,’ I look up bus routes and times. I always check the bus first. But a lot of times, [the bus] isn’t a reasonable option, because there are three transfers and it’s going to take 9 hours. So if there’s nothing there, then I say ‘Hey, do you know if you could have a friend you could drive with if we paid them to drive you?'"
So you pay for the friend’s gas?
"No, we’ll actually pay them. It’s cheaper than a flight. It’s paying somebody for their labor; for taking the day off to drive you. On top of their gas, we pay about $50 per half day. If that doesn’t work, then we go to a plane. If there is no airport nearby, then [we book a long-distance] taxi."
You mostly communicate over text? Why?
"It’s a lot easier to say, 'Here’s a screenshot from the plane ticket,' by text. You can use emojis and communicate in a more friendly way. If you’re on the phone, you need to find a quiet space away from anyone you don’t want to know. But you can [text] under the table. And I think it’s probably a lot easier to tell a stranger personal details over text than over the phone. I also do calls. Some people want to talk to a person."
Texas’ 24-hour waiting period is a central part of the new Refinery29 Shatterbox Anthology film Lucia, Before And After. The main character ends up sleeping in her car overnight while waiting for an abortion. How often does happen?
"That’s a very real thing. It happens often. I never want somebody getting an abortion and then sleeping in their car afterward. That’s not okay. And that’s a huge risk to safety and health overall."
Do travel mix-ups or issues ever prevent the women you help from getting their abortion?
"Protesters can actually be more of a logistical obstacle than you might think. I had one woman fly all the way out to Albuquerque, drive to the clinic, and find herself unable to penetrate the crowd. She got so panicked and was so upset that she had to go back and take a breath and calm down and try again. She missed her appointment. She had to fly back home and, the next week, fly back. Weather in Texas is also a big deal. If it so much as hails, everything shuts down. I had one person who was supposed to have a two-day appointment. She took a Greyhound into Dallas, and then all of the roads iced over. She had to stay at the hotel that whole week, away from her kids, until she could finally get the bus back. I have to be on call if somebody’s driving, in case they need a hotel between where they left and where they’re going to because of the weather."
So are you pretty much always on call?
"I’m on call for most of my days. Weekends are busy, too. That’s when most people are starting to travel if they have Monday appointments. If you’re getting a later-term abortion, the appointments always start on Tuesday. They have everyone get in on Monday night to make sure there are no travel problems, no delayed planes. The patients will be done between Thursday and Saturday. There’s definitely a rhythm to it.”
How do you decide where to book? Are you like a Yelp for abortion travel?
"I am! I know which hotels are closest to the clinic, which to book if you have a car, which to book if you don’t. I know which hotels are nice to our clients and which ones aren't. That's a very long mental list I have. There’s a particular hotel in Albuquerque that we’ve had problems with. It had a shuttle that would go to the clinic, which was great and totally open-minded. Once new management came in, they shut down the shuttle. It would go anywhere except for the clinic. If they found out you were going to the clinic, they up-charged us for our clients. At one point, they threw our client out of the hotel. It was horrifying."
Is that sort of response common?
"To be honest, and this is truly wonderful, we have met a lot more friendly businesses than we have aggressive ones or malicious ones. I book a lot of hotels, so I get offers from salespeople at different hotel groups.”
Really? They give you a discount?
"They definitely want to keep your business and make you exclusive with them. I usually say, look we’re an abortion group, I don’t know if you want to be the 'abortion hotel.' Just give them an FYI from the start. I had one person call me back and very enthusiastically say, ‘Absolutely. I wanted to call so you didn’t think I was against what you are doing in any way.'"
What struck you most when you started? Do you remember your first trip?
"Buying plane tickets. It was so expensive. I was 20, 21 when I started — I didn’t really go around buying plane tickets! I could barely afford to book one plane ticket for myself. The idea of throwing down hundreds of dollars [was nerve wracking]. I was like, Oh my God, do I have the times right? Are all of the names correct? I was texting this client over and over, verifying the spelling of her name. The cost made how inaccessible it is real."
What happens if a minor calls?
"We work with Jane’s Due Process, which is a group that gets minors in Texas judicial bypass so they can get their abortion [without a parent’s permission]. If a minor needs transportation to a courthouse, to meet their lawyer, and also to the abortion itself, once they’ve gotten the bypass, we fund their travel. How else is a minor going to get around? The public transportation in Texas is god-awful. There’s no way I could have gotten around the suburbs as a minor, ever. Not even just walking. It would be impossible."
What happens after the appointment? Do you ever stay in touch?
"I’ve never met anyone in person, but everybody thanks me. ‘This made everything go so much more smoothly,’ is something I hear a lot. One woman asked me to text job opportunities in the field. I end up getting in casual conversations with people. Some will ask if the hotel is pet-friendly because they have a dog that they can’t leave at home, so we’ll talk about our pets. One person and I actually exchanged photos of our cats. [At the end of the day,] you’re just having a conversation with somebody."
It sounds like a tough and stressful job. What drives you to keep going each day?
"So often, I just think about people who get the list of resources I send them, and they’re just like, ‘Oh no, I can’t do this. There is no way that I can possibly do this. I can barely make the decision because I have so much else going on in my life. How am I supposed to do all these different things [to get the abortion]? That’s going to be impossible.’ Services like ours really do cater to people who might want to give up, looking at the obstacles ahead. We are here to make sure they can get the abortion if they want the abortion, and to help them get through each of those steps."
This interview has been edited and condensed. For more on Fund Texas Choice, including how to donate, visit this link.
Looking for more stories about the continuing fight for reproductive rights? Watch Shatterbox Anthology’s “Lucia, Before and After” below. This short film from director Anu Valia takes an unflinching look at the barriers to choice still faced by women across the United States:
Just 7% of 2016's top films were directed by women. Refinery29 wants to change this by giving 12 female directors a chance to claim their power. Our message to Hollywood? You can't win without women. Watch new films every month on Refinery29.com/Shatterbox and Comcast Watchable.