Fire in the Belly: Liza Fuentes

Remember how there was all that talk last week about passing the reproductive rights torch? It started with Michael Winerip’s New York Times piece, where Sally Burgess, executive director of the Hope clinic, who is also chairwoman of the National Abortion Federation, said: “What I observe for women in their 20s and 30s — there are fewer who really have the fire in the belly for this.” Then it devolved from there with Debra Dickersen over at, demanding “Tell me exactly what today’s feminists are doing for the struggle.”
Well, feministing has teamed up with the National Network of Abortion Funds to answer that question in a very tangible way, bringing you the real stories/insights/lives of young women working in the reproductive justice field. We’ll be bringing you one each day for the next five. Enjoy and rejoice at how very bright the flame still is.
First up is Liza Fuentes, a researcher/activist/public health professional/feminista who works at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and is a former member of the board of the National Network of Abortion Funds. She lives in the Bronx.
1. What kind of work do you do regarding reproductive justice?
Since 2003, I’ve been a volunteer member of abortion funds, grassroots groups that raise money to help women and girls pay for their abortions, including the D.C. Abortion Fund and the New York Abortion Access Fund, as well as the Haven Coalition, whose volunteers open their homes to women traveling to New York City for abortions.
Restrictions on health insurance that target low-income women, including the Hyde Amendment (which has prohibited federal Medicaid from covering abortion since 1976), make abortion out of reach for many women. Having the means to pay for an abortion is just as important as having the legal right to abortion, so abortion funds are truly doing reproductive justice work.
Currently, I am a researcher at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, where I use research as a way to have grassroots Latina leaders’ work and experiences shape reproductive justice policy advocacy at the national level.
2. Why were you drawn to this work?
First, I was a medical interpreter at a Latino-serving health clinic through college and I saw a lot of limitations on women’s resources and rights–limitations that wealthier and white women didn’t have. To get health insurance, women had to fill out endless paperwork proving that they needed insurance; and many women’s care came through Catholic Charities, so when it came to getting family planning and abortion care, they had to find another way. I really wanted to be part of making healthcare access a dignified process, not one that treated poor women like criminals.
Secondly, I started to reflect on my own experience having an abortion. I remember talking to a close friend many months after the fact and she was like “I haven’t heard from you in forever, how have you been?” I heard myself say “I had an abortion.” She said, “Why didn’t you say something? I was right here.”
I had never really questioned before that having an abortion was something that I shouldn’t talk about. But then I thought about what I went though trying to get the abortion–being shunned by my doctor and figuring out how to pay for it. And I saw that the whole process was made to ensure that women are ashamed of themselves no matter how they go about it. And I decided that I didn’t want to stand for it anymore.

3. What’s the most frustrating part of your job? The most thrilling?
Some policies and programs that try to provide women with access to the resources they need in order to plan for and raise their families are still coercive. For example, some policymakers may support public money for family planning because they think poor women should limit how many kids they have. This is a problem–abortion rights go hand-in-hand with the right have the number of children that you think is best. We have a lot of work to do to make that connection.
The most thrilling:
Taking action. RJ advocates are about making change happen and making sure women of color are leading that work.
4. There are plenty of people who think that post-Roe women take their rights for granted. What would you like to say to these folks?
To quote my friend Laura Nixon:
“Abortion rights are interwoven with many social justice struggles, such as against coercive sterilization practices targeting women of color; for a humane standard of living for women relying on public assistance programs; for family preservation instead of punitive State removal of children from their mothers; and against reckless corporate polluting which damages the environment and in turn, women’s fertility. Making those connections is part of building a sustainable reproductive justice movement.”
I was born in 1980, so I am 28 years old right now. I chose Laura’s quote because reframes the problem: legal abortion is not the only, or even the biggest piece of the puzzle. When we insist that it is, we are excluding many young women, especially women of color, whose own reproductive lives may have been impacted tremendously by the other assaults that Laura lists.
5. What’s one thing that a reader can do right now to help make your job easier?
President Obama has proposed a regulation that would rescind President Bush’s last minute “provider conscience” refusal clause, which allowed healthcare workers to refuse to provide information, referrals, and care to a woman seeking abortion or birth control. Send an email to telling the Obama administration that you support their effort rescind the refusal clause and why.

Join the Conversation

  • drfantastic

    Ms. Fuentes, you rock!
    Thanks for bringing together the struggle for reproductive rights, with the struggle to mother with dignity, with the struggle to end racism and classism. I loved this interview!

  • LalaReina

    I am a pro choice woc but the way these ghouls hang around minority communities is disturbing. For instance black women are six percent of the population and 36 percent of abortions. There is something wrong with that.

  • dancerjess

    We do exist…I am 23 and work at PP…most of the women I work with are in their 20’s and 30’s…I absolutely love what I do. I definitely have a “fire in the belly” for it :)
    As far as race and abortion goes, it has far more to do with poverty and income than it does with “targeting minorities”. Abortion providers do not target minorities…if you’d READ the post you’d notice that it’s about reproductive justice for all. Also, IMO if you’re calling a woman who works in RJ a “ghoul” than you’re not prochoice at all…

  • wyo_cowgirl

    I, too, am a 20-something currently working in the RJ movement (at an independent women’s health clinic which provides abortion care, among a host of other services). Over the weekend, I attended the Abortion Care Network’s annual meeting. I can report that women of my “younger” generation were very well represented among the attendees, likely even a majority.
    In one seminar I attended, we were able to briefly touch on this supposed controversy over a supposed lack of younger RJ advocates (I say “supposed” because my experience DOES NOT bear our the idea that we are few and far between!). Anyway, at this seminar I was able to bring up a point that has been bothering me since this conversation was initiated.
    Anyone who wants to make RJ their life’s work– through direct and full-time service at a clinic, an abortion fund, or any kind of woman-oriented non-profit–faces some formidable obstacles. It isn’t easy to make a go of it, and those of us trying to do it in this decade, in this financial climate, are facing a distinctly different set of challenges than those faced by the generations before us.
    I’m not really going to get into the emotional/social challenges that come part and parcel with abortion work. These are significant and deserve a space of their own. I just want to dedicate a few words to the strictly practical and financial difficulties of doing RJ work, or really any kind of social justice work, full-time. On an entry level–and to some degree on any level–it just doesn’t pay. Surprisingly, this is something that hasn’t seemed to figure into most of the musings I’ve read on this subject. Unfortunately, I think it has to!.
    Generally speaking, people interested in doing this work are not particularly interested in material gain. However–a girl’s gotta live on something. And where we differ from our mothers is that so many of us are entering the “real world” with a ridiculous amount of debt. I’m not just talking college loans, but also often medical debt from being under or uninsured. You’ve got your basic cost of living stuff, and then there are those of trying to support not only ourselves but children or other family members. For many people, working clinic phones for $10.00/hour is just not a viable option. (Many entry-level non-profit jobs don’t pay much better than this.) There are many women in my organization who use the job as a stop-over on the way to med school or graduate school, and are basically being supported by their parents or a significant other. Those of us who don’t have that option struggle big-time. I have a second job, and I chose to do that so I could take the clinic job, rather than climbing the corporate ladder somewhere else. But I’m barely pulling off supporting myself, and I’ve got no cushion for any kind of disaster. I won’t be able to do this forever. So if I can’t find something that pays a bit better in the field, I will eventually have to look elsewhere. And I’m well aware that I personally have more advantages and privilege to fall back on than many others who may also wish to do this sort of work.
    I feel self-conscious talking about this because I’m afraid it will come off the wrong way, as if anyone doing social justice work should be in it for the money! But again, we all have a bottom line. We all have to avoid bankruptcy (in some cases) or literally being out in the street (in others!). And this can be tough, tough, tough to do in the non-profit world.
    So any discussion of why more women aren’t choosing RJ work should take into consideration the fact that some who desperately want to (and there are SO MANY–we comb through prodigious stacks of resumes for every opening we have!) can’t just *choose* to do it. There’s an aspect of either privilege or great sacrifice for most who are able to stick with it.

  • wyo_cowgirl

    Anyone who took the time to wade through my overly (!) punctuated comment above: please go easy on my citation of $10.00/hr as a “low” wage. I’m well aware that there are also many people who would consider that amount a living wage and better, and would be grateful for an opportunity to work at that rate. These individuals have very few actual “choices” in how they make their living or what they are paid. I definitely acknowledge that my comment comes from the context of my own life and those of my co-workers, and thus speaks from a relatively privileged point of view. It is also directed to the relatively privileged audience who is able to spend time on Feministing, read the New York Times, and engage in a dialogue about young feminists and reproductive justice.