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Looking back through the archives at Duke's discontinued abortion loan fund

It became the hottest topic of The Chronicle opinion pages, the epicenter of a verbal firestorm between incensed Duke students.

But, the subject in question was neither the state of fish in West Union nor the need for housing reform.

The year was 1978, and the debate raged over an issue at the heart of America’s culture wars: abortion coverage. Duke students were challenging, or defending, the existence of Duke’s Abortion Loan Fund, a program that provided interest-free loans to students seeking abortions. 

All this was described in research by Hayley Farless, Trinity '17, for the Duke History Revisited Program. She pored through archives and Chronicle articles to tell the history of the abortion loan fund.

The program was run by the Associated Students of Duke University (ASDU), the predecessor of today’s Duke Student Government. The fund had existed since 1971, but this particular debate was sparked by a Sept. 28, 1978 article in The Chronicle, which described the looming possibility of the fund’s collapse due to repeated defaults on loans. 

Some students had evidently been unaware of the fund’s existence until this report brought it to their attention. 

Responding to the article in a letter to The Chronicle, Mark Calvert, Trinity ‘80 and Law School ‘83, did not hold back in his sarcastic criticisms.

“Since the precedent has been set for ASDU funding the liquidation of superfluous children of Duke students,” he wrote, “why shouldn’t this service be available to deal with other inconvenient relatives of our energetic Dookies?”

Better yet, he continued, if “embryonic children” could be treated like “excrement,” would the ASDU be so kind as to provide funds to beleaguered medical school students for the liquidation of their pesky mothers?  

The response from supporters of the abortion fund came with equal harshness. 

“I find Mark Calvert’s opinions to be the best evidence to support the case for retroactive abortions,” wrote Deborah Jayne Scian, Trinity ’81, in a letter to The Chronicle.

In the 1970s, the atmosphere around reproductive rights had begun to shift at both the national and local level, according to Farless. Since 1967, women had been able to receive elective abortions in North Carolina, but only if they had lived in the state for four months.

Three years later, New York became the first state to make abortion legal without residency requirements, meaning N.C. residents could travel out of state to seek an abortion. In 1973, in the wake of Roe v. Wade—the Supreme Court case legalizing abortion nationwide—the first abortion clinic opened in North Carolina, and three years later a clinic opened in Durham.

Against this backdrop, ASDU presidential candidate William Kennedy, Trinity ‘72, first proposed a plan for an abortion loan fund during the spring 1971 presidential campaign. In May of that year, Kennedy formally presented the proposal to ASDU, and it passed by a large margin.

The Abortion Loan Fund consisted of $4,000, with 73 cents of student fees drawn from every undergraduate. To qualify for a loan, a candidate had to be over 18 and either a pregnant Duke student or an individual impregnated by a Duke student. Those seeking a loan would also have to undergo counseling, take a pregnancy test, provide a hospital receipt to the Abortion Loan Committee and commit to repaying the loan within a span of nine months. 

The maximum loan was $300, and all loans were interest-free. In theory, the interest from the fund’s bank account would make the program self-sufficient. 

Kennedy, who became chairman of the fund, defended the program when he was interviewed in October 1971. He noted that the goal was to address the “basic inequities” in the process of securing loans for abortions. 

“This is a loan program, not an abortion referral program,” he told The Chronicle.

Even so, the fund fueled controversy within the University and generated headlines across the nation. A week after ASDU passed the resolution authorizing its creation, a petition signed by 555 students circulated with the goal of allowing students who morally opposed abortion to receive a refund on the designated portion of their student fees. ASDU denied the petition twice.

Critics also sent seething letters to the University President Terry Sanford. The president’s office forwarded these communications to ASDU as the administration was not involved in the program.

“Thank God we never sent anyone to Duke University and are still around to stop anyone that we can from going to such a hell hole,” one letter to Sanford read. “It sure is too bad that your parents and the parents of all who think as you did not abort you and you would not be here to incourage (sic) such murdering.”

A decade after the program was created, the responses to the fund over the years were summed up by Porter Durham, the ASDU president and acting loan officer for the fund. 

“To some ASDU is an angel of mercy,” Durham, Trinity ‘83 and Law School ‘85, told The Chronicle in November 1981. “To others it is an accessory to murder.”

One of the groups on campus most resistant to the fund’s existence was Duke Students For Life. In 1979, the group successfully lobbied for ASDU to add a maternity fund to the abortion fund, which would provide loans to support students who chose to become mothers, as an alternate path instead of abortions. 

Five years later, Students for Life began campaigning heavily across campus for the ASDU to consider a binding referendum regarding the existence of the abortion fund. They distributed flyers, posted advertisements in The Chronicle and organized events on the quad. When over a thousand students signed the petition asking that students be able to get their contribution refunded—above the minimum 15% of the student body required to force a referendum—ASDU scheduled a student-body-wide vote for April 10. 

The result was a resounding affirmation of the fund’s existence. Students voted three to one in support for the fund. The program had weathered its stiffest challenge to date. 

In the end, what ultimately precipitated the collapse of the abortion loan fund came not from pro-life resistance but from financial anarchy in the loan repayment process. In 1978, The Chronicle reported that the fund was already in “serious danger of extinction” because of spotty loan repayment, with two of the current eight loans delinquent. 

Betsy Williams, vice president of ASDU and point person for administering the fund in 1978, lamented to The Chronicle that borrowers often treated the nine-month repayment deadline with too much latitude. 

“I think a lot of them (borrowers) don’t take the contract seriously enough when they sign it,” Williams, School of Nursing ‘80, said.

In 1981, the committee overseeing the fund allocated an additional $500, but the program’s financial woes persisted. A year later, the front page of The Chronicle bore the headline, “Loan funds quickly depleting.” According to the article, close to half of the 42 loans backed by the abortion fund from 1973 to 1982 remained unpaid. 

Even so, the program lasted until the mid 2000s, when, in an anticlimactic fashion, it dissolved due to a shortage of money. The fund had financed ten to twelve abortions a year. 

Although the loan fund no longer exists, Duke students covered by the Student Medical Insurance Plan (SMIP) can still receive insurance benefits for abortions through the first 16 weeks of pregnancy.

At the state and national levels, the fight over abortion is as fierce as ever. In North Carolina this spring, a federal district court struck down a legislative ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Under the new “heartbeat” laws, abortions are illegal after the detection of a fetus’s heartbeat, usually during the period of six to eight weeks of pregnancy. Many of these laws were crafted to generate lawsuits that will lead all the way to the Supreme Court. 

Pro-life activists continue the quest to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Even as the national controversy over abortion persists, the memory of the Abortion Loan Fund has largely faded with time, relegated now to the annals of The Chronicle. But there, nestled between headlines on Cold War arms agreements and opinion columns with the hottest dating advice, the debate remains as scathing as ever.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include the name of researcher Hayley Farless, whose findings are cited in this article.

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