Abortion Fund of Ohio director fights for justice on all fronts

New executive director Lexis Dotson-Dufault on bodily autonomy, the reality that reproductive justice isn’t limited to abortion access and the experiences in which her sense of fight are rooted.
Lexis Dotson-Dufault
Lexis Dotson-DufaultCourtesy Abortion Fund of Ohio

Lexis Dotson-Dufault, the new executive director of Abortion Fund of Ohio (AFO), said that talking about abortion shouldn’t be taboo. 

“There’s a saying, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion,” Dotson-Dufault said. “One in four people who can give birth are having an abortion, and that’s a lot of people. But when we see it portrayed in the media, and the way we’re taught about it in school, abortion is treated as this very rare, this very traumatic thing, this very taboo thing that we shouldn’t talk about. And that’s not what it is.”

Dotson-Dufault views destigmatizing abortion as a key element of her work, and she wants to move the conversation beyond the extremes often held up by abortion advocates, such as pregnancies experienced by minors and victims of rape or incest, expanding it to include people who aren’t in a financial position to have a child, or those who simply don’t want one at this point in their lives. “To me, any single reason that someone wants to have an abortion, as long as it’s their decision, it’s okay with me,” said Dotson-Dufault, who has had two abortions. “We have to emphasize and teach people what bodily autonomy really means.”

In November, Ohioans overwhelmingly voted to uphold the right to choose with the passage of Issue 1, a constitutional amendment that protects abortion and reproductive rights. The legislation negates the six-week ban (with no exemptions for rape or incest) passed by Republican state legislators in 2019 and signed by Gov. Mike DeWine, which had been under indefinite judicial ban pending a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court.

But reproductive justice work, Dotson-Dufault said, is impacted greatly by the patchwork of abortion restrictions that exist in neighboring states, as well. In July, for example, AFO helped 355 people. In August, the same month Indiana legislators banned almost all abortions, that number rose to 562. 

“We’ve absolved a lot of the Midwest. Kentucky does not have care. West Virginia does not have care. Indiana does not have care. Every state that surrounds us, basically – except for Michigan – does not have care,” she said. “And Ohio isn’t really looked at as an abortion haven, so we don’t get the funding as states that are more known for abortion access, and that can be hard on us. … I think a big thing we have to do is get Abortion Fund of Ohio’s name out there. I want us to be an abortion haven. I want people to be able to come here, to come to us, and for us to be able to give them the help that they need.”

In 2023, AFO provided more than $1.2 million in financial support for patients to access abortion – a rise in demand that has exhausted the fund’s resources, leading AFO to extend its winter closure through January 2024. A December feature in The Nation detailed similar struggles currently being experienced by abortion funds nationwide, which are dealing collectively with surging demand and prices, along with decreased donations as post-Dobbs outrage subsides. “What our movement really needs right now is for folks to donate, especially in a consistent and ongoing way,” Baltimore Abortion Fund Director of Development & Communications Lynn McCann-Yeh told the publication. “Our movement for reproductive freedom is ongoing and will continue to extend past the news cycle and headlines.”

Named executive director of AFO earlier this month, Dotson-Dufault actually started with the nonprofit organization as an intern in 2019, returning to serve as resource coordinator and then advancing to program manager before stepping into her current role. Throughout, Dotson-Dufault developed and sharpened a perspective that views abortion through a reproductive justice lens, connecting the push for bodily autonomy to everything from the fight against House Bill 68, which restricts gender-affirming health care and was passed this week by Republican legislators, to Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, which has led to the deaths of more than 21,000 Palestinians, a majority of whom are women and children.

“A lot of people are like, ‘This is out of place for you to say as an abortion fund,’” said Dotson-Dufault, who was righteously critical of the statement on Palestine released earlier this month by Planned Parenthood (“They should have just shut their goddamn mouth”). “Well, we operate with the belief that people deserve to have children, to not have children – whatever that might look like – and to live. And that can’t exist when you’re massacring families and bombing hospitals and killing nurses and doctors and everything. And, more specifically, as a Black woman, and as Black people, reproductive justice was found off Black people and Black women. We know, we understand what it is like to be ripped away from our children, whether it’s through incarceration or places like the Department of Job and Family Services. We know what it’s like to be dehumanized and not looked upon as worthy of basic rights. … For me, I don’t care what other people say. You know what I do care about? Those Palestinian patients who are calling us to get help for their abortion, and them knowing we believe that they deserve to live.”

Dotson-Dufault said she has always carried this sense of fight within her – “I just came from a meeting with my executive coach, who had me do an Enneagram Test, and yes, I’m a challenger,” she said, and laughed – tracing it in part to the experience of being raised by her grandmother, who grew up in the 1940s South.

“And even before I was raised by her, I was in the foster care system, and my mom was in and out of incarceration and struggled with substance abuse, as did much of my family,” she said. “So, I grew up really recognizing that these systems that are supposed to protect us do not. Whether it was being ripped away from my family at 3 in the morning, or watching my mother be put away for years, I saw the effect of that. And, as I got older, I turned away from being mad at my mom to asking, okay, why is this happening? … And that’s really when I started learning about inequities, racism, structural oppression. And I’ve been rolling with it ever since, trying to combat it.”

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