Press about Haven over the years
On the Issues
Haven Volunteers: An Immediate Impact on Abortion Care
by Mary Lou Greenberg
October 7, 2011
Karen Duda signed petitions, went to rallies and participated in traditional pro-choice activism. But, she said, "I wanted to do more." She found the "more" in Haven in New York City six years ago, and now serves as its coordinator. It is, says Duda, "a way to have an immediate impact on women's lives."
The Haven Coalition is a group of volunteers who provide free overnight accommodations in their homes for women who come to New York City for second trimester abortions that require going to the clinic on two consecutive days. Haven works in partnership with several clinics, including Choices Women's Medical Center. Haven's network makes it possible for many low-income women to get procedures they need up to 24-weeks -- procedures that may not be available in their home states.
Haven was founded 10 years ago by a woman who worked as a counselor at a New York City abortion clinic. One day, she asked a patient who came in for a two-day procedure, "where are you staying?" "In my car," the woman answered. "I have no money for a hotel." The counselor immediately called several of her friends and asked if they had a couch the woman could sleep on. She found a space for her -- and Haven was born.
Now a nonprofit organization, the group has a Board of Directors and approximately 100 volunteers on its database. Twenty to 30 of them sign up on a monthly basis to house women. Volunteer hosts find out about Haven mostly through word-of-mouth, while women who need housing are generally referred by the clinics, said Duda in an interview. A cell phone is the base of operations: there is no office.
With Haven, Duda said, the women can stop worrying about the practicalities of their trip, which often can be overwhelming to those who aren't familiar with New York City. Haven volunteers are asked to pick up their guests at the clinic after the first part of the procedure (dilation of the cervix with laminaria), take them to their home, provide dinner and a safe place to sleep, then take them back to the clinic in the morning for the abortion. Some women are accompanied by a friend or relative who also stays with the host. When a woman comes by herself, often the host will wait for her while she has the procedure, then assist her in getting transportation home.
"The hosts provide a comfortable environment, and the women appreciate being with people who aren't judging them," Duda said. Families and co-workers of the patients may not know about their pregnancy and abortion, so both privacy and support can be especially important.
Women have come from as far away as Florida and Canada, as well as nearer localities with more restrictive abortion laws.
"There's a "leap in the commitment required in opening your home to a stranger who can be going through an intense emotional experience," says Duda. It's a jump into another comfort zone – or maybe, "a discomfort zone" for a while, as Duda puts it. "You're giving a little piece of yourself," she says.
Outside of the Haven community, Duda believes that abortion needs more openness and discussion. When abortion is in the news, she notes, it's never about women having a right to do what's best for themselves; the fetus is almost always called a "baby." "People just don't talk about abortion that much," she said. "What if everyone who'd had an abortion or who has a friend who had one, came out about it. Suppose fathers and mothers wore t-shirts, saying 'I paid for my daughter's abortion because she was too young to have a baby.'"
While the majority of the Haven hosts are women, some men and at least one gay male couple volunteer, as well as male-female couples. The diversity shows that "this is an issue that affects everyone," says Duda. And in a societal context it goes further -- it's "a way that different oppressed groups can support each other," she says.
The Haven Coalition can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 917-371-2035.
illustration: Martha Rich
Katie needed an abortion. Fast.
She wasn't the only one. Latisha, 30, arrived on the same day from Philadelphia and rode the subway to the same clinic where Katie and Maria sat in the waiting room. "There were all these people getting off the train. I'd never had so many people bumping up against me in my life," Latisha says of her first rush hour in midtown. "Then this lady comes out of nowhere, grabbing my arm and screaming, 'You don't have to do this! I'll be your baby's godmother,' and I'm like, 'Miss, can you get off my arm?' "
Katie and Latisha are among the thousands of out-of-towners annually who find their way here for an abortion. Already a beacon for reproductive rights, New York this month will become the first city to require abortion training for OB residents in public hospitals, thanks to a mandate from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It's also one of the few places free of parental consent laws and mandatory waiting periods. With competition among dozens of providers keeping costs down, getting an appointment in NYC is often faster and cheaper than getting one closer to home.
The phenomenon of women traveling to far-away clinics actually has a name: "abortion tourism." But usually the flow is from countries where abortion is illegal, or close to it. Best known are the estimated 7000 Irish women who journey to England every year for the procedure.
Yet with 86 percent of all U.S. counties lacking even a single provider, American women have more in common with their Irish sisters than we'd like to think. For many in the Northeast who need a second-trimester abortion, New York City is the only choice. In nearby Philadelphia, Boston, Rochester, and Buffalo, clinics that offer the procedure are scarce and getting scarcer, with full schedules and high fees, and almost none will end a pregnancy past 20 weeks.
Drawn by the promise of reasonable access, women with no other option keep coming to New York. In 2000, according to the city's Department of Health, nearly 1700 traveled here for a second-trimester termination—more than six per working day. It's a procedure that often requires two or three days, because the cervix is first dilated with sterile sticks of seaweed, called laminaria, which expand over the course of many hours, and varying stages of pain and discomfort. That means patients need a place to lay their head, whether or not they're able to pay for one. Those poor and determined enough come prepared to crash on a subway train, a park bench, or the backseat of a car, like Lisa, a college student from Maine who recently drove down with two close friends and three sleeping bags.
Luckily, she didn't have to camp on the streets. Instead, she found the Haven Coalition, a grassroots group of about 20 women who are willing to house abortion patients for free. Last month, Haven celebrated its first anniversary of offering couches and meals to virtual strangers. In the past year, volunteers have hosted 39 patients, most under age 21, some from as far away as Newfoundland, many whose trip to New York was their first one ever.
Among them was Katie, the Massachusetts teen, who was nearly 20 weeks along before her grandmother, a warm woman with a funky purple dye job, suspected something and coaxed her to the doctor for a regular checkup. The procedure would have been doable in Boston but was delayed by the parental-consent requirement. Even though Maria is Katie's legal guardian and was more than willing to give consent, the clinic demanded an official state ID, which Katie—a city kid with no need for a driver's license—did not have. Getting one took exactly two weeks, pushing the pregnancy past the clinic's limit.
After several phone calls to providers all over New England, someone finally told Maria she'd have to make the trip to New York. "Talk to a woman named Catherine," Maria remembers the voice on the phone saying. "She'll help find you a place to stay."
The late Flo Kennedy once quipped that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament. In that alt universe, Catherine M., the founder of Haven, might very well be the patron saint of abortion access. Her name, which has been concealed here to protect her safety, is almost legend among providers and activists. Malika A. Lévy of the Greater Philadelphia Women's Medical Fund says that if a client is past 21 weeks, "we know we're sending her to New York. It's really a pleasure and relief to be able to say, 'Don't worry, we've got a group of women there who can house you and help you get around.' "
As the hot line director at the National Abortion Federation in the late '90s, Catherine could raise $1000 for a needy woman within a day. "I still can," boasts the 25-year-old, and sometimes she does, even though that's not really her job anymore.
Working the phones in Washington, Catherine heard every story imaginable. She took calls from women who were bleeding regularly and fitting into their size-six jeans but were in fact 22-weeks pregnant; teens who'd been too paralyzed by fear and shame to tell their parents; women who had been to "crisis pregnancy centers"—funded by "Choose Life" license-plate sales and anti-choice groups—and lied to about how far along they were; women who wrongly believed they had a 50 percent chance of dying from an abortion; aunts and grandmothers of girls who had been sexually assaulted. Sometimes Catherine would even get a call from a woman who had just been told at her mid-pregnancy sonogram that the fetus was anencephalic—a defect in which part or all of the brain is missing—and that her OB either didn't know how or didn't want to perform an abortion for her. "There are so many reasons why women need second-trimester abortions," says Catherine.
For Latisha, finding out she was 21-weeks pregnant was a total shock. She had just started school again after 12 years of working two jobs to support her two sons, now 10 and 12, and was on Depo-Provera, an injected contraceptive. But within days of her first class she landed in the emergency room with a chest infection, where a doctor came bouncing in with the news. "I was like, 'What? That's impossible. I'm not showing. I've got no symptoms. And I've been getting my period every month.' " She stared straight at the doctor and held up her arm. "You must have mixed up the charts. Here, look at my wristband."
But Latisha was indeed pregnant, and not once did anyone at the hospital mention the word abortion. She was worried the contraceptive could lead to a serious birth defect. "The doctor told me that I could come back for amnio at six or seven months and they could tell me if there was something wrong with the baby," she says. "Right. But by then, what could I do about it? I wasn't going to take that chance." The minute she got home she opened the yellow pages and began calling every clinic listed. "I'd call and they'd say, 'We don't go over 20.' 'We don't go over 18.' 'We don't go over 16.' " Finally, on the fourth call, a woman directed her to call the Choice hot line, which in turn directed her to NYC. "I told the clinic I could maybe pay for one night at a hotel, but not two. Then I talked to Catherine, and she told me she had some people I could stay with. The best part about everything was Catherine," says Latisha.
Even with help from Haven, Latisha ended up dipping into her savings account to get through the ordeal. Close to 90 percent of U.S. abortions happen in the first trimester, at a fee of approximately $350. But a second-trimester procedure costs four times as much, and the women who are more than 12 weeks along are often those of least means. Nearly one out of three are between 15 and 19 years old, and many are on Medicaid, which in most states doesn't cover an abortion.
"Sometimes they don't know they're pregnant for a couple months, and then they're dicking around with Medicaid," Catherine explains one evening over a cup of coffee. Then they're hit with fees of $1500 to $2000, not including travel expenses and missed work. "As they're trying to raise funds, the pregnancy is getting further and further along, the price is going up and up, and the likelihood of finding a provider is dwindling," she says, talking faster and faster, shifting her long hair from one shoulder to the other. "It's like they're chasing the fee."
A recent study published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute confirms the effect of money on reproductive choices. In a survey of women whose Medicaid wouldn't cover an abortion, up to a third of those asked said they continued the pregnancy against their wishes. Leslie Rottenberg, senior director of social services at Planned Parenthood, has seen this happen again and again. "A lot of these women give up," she says. "It takes a lot of work to find the right person to call."
Other women, like Katie, are pushed into their second trimester by parental-consent laws or mandatory waiting periods. Thirty-two states now require parental consent or notification, and 26 mandate state-directed counseling and/or a waiting period of up to 24 hours. In Mississippi, second-trimester abortions increased 17 percent after the state implemented a one-day waiting period.
State-ordered delays are not just patronizing. As Catherine points out, 24 hours of waiting can turn into a week, and "a week can mean $800," not to mention a more physically taxing procedure. At the hot line, Catherine noticed that she was sending a lot of the most desperate women to New York, where a second-trimester abortion can run relatively low at around $1000. But when they asked her, "Where am I going to stay?" she didn't have an answer.
After more than a year at the hot line, Catherine left for a counseling job at a clinic on Manhattan's West Side. One day she got a call from a colleague across town who had a patient desperate to get an abortion but in need of a place to stay; could she possibly sleep on Catherine's couch? She could. "After that, I was hooked," says Catherine. She began asking other counselors and friends if they would take people in, and hooked up with two women from the Brooklyn Pro-Choice Network who'd been hosting for years. In June 2001, she made Haven official by gingerly recruiting volunteers and offering her services to three of the city's largest clinics. She has since registered with the National Network of Abortion Funds.
Without really intending to, Catherine re-created a network that existed pre-Roev. Wade, when abortion was legal in New York State and almost nowhere else. Back then, some 350,000 women with unwanted pregnancies flocked to the city. "There was a whole East Coast 'underground railroad,' " writes Robin Morgan, a noted feminist and former Ms. editor, in an e-mail interview. Volunteers made referrals, raised money, and baby-sat for people who couldn't get child care. The corps deliberately remained informal and unnamed, "a leftover from the days when we were already all doing the same thing illegally."
Catherine believes her generation may be breaking down class and race barriers in a way the second-wavers did not, but she admits Haven needs diversifying. "Almost all of our volunteers are white, and almost all the patients are black or Hispanic," she says.
Still, expanding the operation in general is a tricky endeavor. Up until now Catherine has only recruited by word of mouth, meeting with each prospective volunteer for a couple of hours to gauge their emotional maturity and commitment to abortion rights. Over dinner she scans for any hint of discomfort in their eyes, any wavering in their voices. She says one woman ended up confessing, "To tell you the truth, I hate the idea of abortion. But I'm trying to test my boundaries."
Catherine also checks in with every patient after they've been hosted. "My greatest fear is that someone will sneak by," she says. "It's such a sensitive time for these women. There is enormous potential for damage."
The other obstacle in recruiting is that when it comes down to it, very few women are willing to open their homes for such direct activism. "This is practical feminism rather than theoretical feminism," says Catherine. "Maybe it takes a little bit of madness, a little insanity to say, 'Let's go back to my house and cook dinner together.' We're taught to set boundaries."
Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of the 2000 book Manifestaand a Haven member, says it's real work to move beyond principles and politics. "What actually needs to be done is harder and more direct than saying, oh, let's make sure Bush doesn't appoint a right-wing Supreme Court justice," she argues. "There are so many things that are more critical that have to do with access, and hosting is one of them. Paying for people's abortions is another."
That's actually another cause that young New York women have taken up. Around the same time that Catherine founded Haven, a few Barnard and Columbia grads started the New York Abortion Access Fund, an independent source of financial assistance that mostly aids nonresidents who can't get Medicaid. In just one year they've helped 50 women.
The numbers involved aren't vast, but the effect on individuals is huge. Baumgardner herself has hosted three times. Once she took home an Orthodox Jewish woman from upstate who couldn't eat off her dishes. "She got on a bus in the middle of the night. She told me very matter-of-factly that her boyfriend would kill her if he knew what she was doing," she says. Another time it was a teenager who was all alone. Though Baumgardner says hosting engages her on a deeper level, she admits the intimacy can be grueling. "It's not only awkward for me, it's awkward for the person I'm hosting—I try to give them respect and privacy, but it's pretty hard because I live in a studio, so they're sleeping 10 feet away from me," she says. "It's ironic to me that a right that's based on the right to privacy is now practiced in so many unprivate ways."
Still, the women who've been hosted bubble over with gratitude. "I'd never been through an experience like that before," says Latisha, "where people had treated me so nice, you know, strangers helping each other. Catherine's little group made me feel so comfortable." Maria was also moved: "I told Catherine, any time she knows someone who needs shelter in Boston to call me."
In September, though, this little group will need a new leader. Catherine is moving back to her native Canada to begin the ultimate act of practical feminism: She is going to medical school so she can add her young face to the graying population of abortion providers. This decision feels as natural to her as the French she still speaks with her family. And perhaps it is also a way of making good on the help she received a decade ago, when she needed an abortion at the age of 14. "I came to this work feeling like my life had been saved by this procedure," she says, "and I've made my life my thank you."
* Names of patients and family have been changed to protect their privacy.
Nicole (not her real name) spent a night on our sofa bed in February. Neither my husband nor I had met Nicole, and she’d never been to New York. On the subway over the Manhattan Bridge, I pointed out the touristy seaport, the commuter ferries, the missing-tooth space where the twin towers had been. Problem was, we seemed to be on the filthiest train in the city — straight off the set of “The Warriors” — with windows so grimy we could hardly see outside. I told her the trip back in the next morning would be better.
She was tall and thin; not bony, but smooth, like dark clay someone had gently stretched up from the ground. When she told me she used to run track, I wasn’t surprised. She was 19 or 20, a college student from Pennsylvania who’d just scored a full scholarship to an even better school than the one she was attending. Her giant smile was the opposite of her teeny, faint voice, which sounded like a radio station not quite tuned in. She was craving peanut butter and jelly — Skippy and grape — on that soft white potato bread. She insisted on making it herself. As we chatted at my table, I watched her eat one, two, three sandwiches, then reach for the knife again. This kid really puts it away, I thought, impressed. And then I remembered: Right. She’s pregnant.
I brought Nicole a heating pad and some Advil and we watched “American Idol,” finding common ground: Fantasia = good; Matt Rogers = heinous. “I just can’t be pregnant now,” she said at one point in her hazy voice, staring ahead. And later: “I just want to be home.” She called her mom and was ready for bed before 10. First thing in the morning, my husband took her to the clinic; early that afternoon, we heard, Nicole’s boyfriend picked her up and took her home. The view from the bridge, my husband said, had been bright and clear.
Nicole was the first person we hosted as members of a New York-based organization called the Haven Coalition, founded in 2001 by abortion rights advocate Catherine Megill. Haven is a group of about 50 New York City households that offer free overnight housing to women coming from surrounding states — some as far as Maine — for second-trimester abortions, which are rarely available closer to home. (Second-trimester procedures take two days because the cervix is dilated overnight, using sterile sticks of seaweed called laminaria.)
Why do they come to New York? While Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land, making abortion broadly legal, actual access to it is often blocked by thickets of state laws and persistent stigmas. According to Haven, legal and logistical restrictions on abortion — parental consent requirements, lack of Medicaid funding, and the like — push many women past the date at which services are available in their area, and therefore into New York. Here, abortions are available up to 24 weeks of pregnancy — longer than in most nearby states, even in the liberal Northeast — and are significantly more accessible, both legally and financially. Even as “Save Roe!” alarms ring louder, Megill’s and Haven’s efforts — and the need for them — are a reminder that for women with limited resources, “choice” is a mere concept; their rights may already hinge not on the courts, but on sandwiches, bus tickets and the futons of strangers. Women seeking later-term abortions “have been trained to feel shame and guilt, but when you hear their stories you could never feel that you could judge this decision,” says Megill. “Well, I guess you could, but that means you’re not listening.”
Megill, 27, founded Haven when the issue of access to abortion was, literally, brought home to her. Having served as hot-line director for the National Abortion Federation in Washington, she’d moved to New York to work as a clinic counselor. (No longer a host, she’s now working at a homeless shelter in Montreal and planning to go to medical school.) One day, a desperate colleague called from another clinic to see if Megill would let an out-of-town patient — who could hardly afford an abortion, much less a Manhattan hotel — crash on her couch. She said yes that night — and many, many more. She also began asking other counselors and friends if they’d pitch in.
The person who inspired Megill to make Haven official was a 20-year-old rape victim she hosted who’d been living on and off the Philadelphia streets. “She was very shy. She didn’t talk much, just kept her head down,” says Megill. “She did say she hadn’t been able to sleep because she didn’t have anywhere safe; she would always worry about being assaulted again. At one point I said, ‘I’m just going down [to the basement] to get the laundry,’ and she said, ‘I’ll come with you.’ We walked into the elevator, and she walked into my arms and gave me a hug.” Once they talked more, they found out they had much more in common than they’d assumed: minister fathers, a strict upbringing. “In the morning I said, ‘Did you sleep?’” says Megill. “And she said, ‘I was able to sleep because you were here.’
“I completely melted,” says Megill. She gave the woman her address and heard nothing from her for a year. Then a letter came. “She said she was getting her life back on track,” says Megill, “and that she would never forget what had happened.”
That did it. Megill started posting fliers and calling people to organize meetings. The first meeting, held at a Brooklyn church in May 2001, pulled in five people. Each of them told two friends, who in turn told two more friends, and so on. Then some ink in the Village Voice about the fledgling group “blew the whole thing up,” says Megill. “I got a hundred e-mails in a week, people congratulating us and asking where can I send money. I wasn’t expecting the public to respond so strongly. I mean, the need is there, and there was something very clear we could do about it. I didn’t think of it as a big deal,” she says.
She’s not being self-effacing so much as describing her feminist philosophy. “I like to talk about the difference between what I call ‘theoretical’ feminism and ‘practical’ feminism,” says Megill. With Haven, “It comes down to supporting women, not just women’s rights. Supporting actual women, flesh and blood.”
And Haven is about as nuts-and-bolts practical as it gets. Haven has no office and no overhead — just a cellphone and a rotating team of coordinators who screen new members and act as liaisons between clinics and hosts. Most Haven members are on call to put up patients (and sometimes their moms, siblings or partners, too). A few make themselves available for rides or to sit with a patient at Starbucks from the clinic’s closing time until the overnight host can get there.
“I think of Haven as an underground railroad for women seeking abortions,” says Shauna Shames, 24, an early Haven member and coordinator who in 2002 helped double the number of participating hosts. She’s now assistant to National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy in Washington. “When I first heard about it, it seemed like the Jane Network that existed pre-Roe [to help women get safe but illegal abortions].”
This comparison might seem peculiar, even high-drama, given that abortion is legal. However, advocates say, there’s legal, and there’s accessible. With 87 percent of U.S. counties lacking an abortion provider and one-quarter of women seeking abortions traveling 50 miles or more to get them, according to nonprofit research and policy organization the Alan Guttmacher Institute, abortion rights are not even halfway there. As Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt writes in her new book, “The War on Choice,” “Rights without access are no rights at all.”
Haven is unique to New York, but similar organizations have sprung up to address access issues in other parts of the country. The Women’s Health Rights Coalition ACCESS Project in San Francisco helps women with transportation and housing, as do NARAL’s Abortion Access Network in Seattle and the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. In Georgia, where 94 percent of counties lack abortion providers, the Volunteer Drivers Network offers transportation to and from clinics (and that’s only after patients can get themselves to Atlanta).
Rights in New York are, at least by comparison, rights indeed. Here, abortion is available to 24 weeks, covered by Medicaid, and subject to few legal restrictions. On NARAL’s state-by-state abortion access “report card,” New York gets an A.
Our neighbors to the southwest, by contrast, get an F. A predominant number of Haven patients are from Pennsylvania, where women seeking abortions (unavailable in 75 percent of the state’s counties) are required to undergo what abortion-rights advocates call “biased counseling”: a state-sanctioned lecture about their “unborn child.” Abortion advocates blame such restrictions for complicating and delaying an act that is hardly simple to begin with. Especially for low-income women, actually getting an abortion is rarely a simple two-step process of 1) making a decision, and 2) making an appointment. By the time one 41-year-old Guatemalan native came to terms with her choice, which went against her faith and that of her mother, whom she lived with and cared for, plus the fact that her longtime boyfriend left when she revealed the pregnancy, she was too far along to get an abortion at home in Rhode Island. She took the bus to New York; health complications kept her in Haven homes — lying to her family and employer about what she was doing — for two nights.
Pennsylvania and Rhode Island aren’t the only problem states. Counseling is also required in Delaware, Maine and Massachusetts, as is adult (or judicial) consent for minors seeking abortions. Some clinics perform abortions only one day a week; some “clinics” are not clinics at all, but rather anti-abortion outfits dissembling themselves through sleight of ad. Because of such detours and roadblocks — often requiring travel to multiple appointments, missed work and pay, and extra child care — women frequently find themselves in their second trimester before they know it.
Quite a few women get there literally before they know it; they simply do not realize they’re pregnant. Many are the unlucky embodiments of their birth control’s “failure rate”; others experience first-trimester bleeding and assume it’s a period. Last November, Haven hosted a 21-weeks-pregnant woman from upstate who’d had a tubal ligation. (Ultrasounds are also not 100 percent consistent or accurate; a second exam may show a woman to be further along than she was initially told.)
Even women with planned pregnancies can get caught in the same tangle of restrictions. “You can’t do amniocentesis until 15 weeks, when you’re already in your second trimester,” says Sue McPhee, spokeswoman for the Family Planning Association of Maine. If major “fetal distress” is discovered (that is, severe enough to warrant termination), there’s still a problem. “There are no physicians that I’m aware of at this time who perform second-trimester abortions in this state,” she says. “When something goes really wrong with a very wanted pregnancy, on top of that trauma, you’re being sent out of state.”
Confusion over a traumatic decision — and the isolation that often comes with it — can also make time tick by. We recently hosted a 23-year-old woman from El Salvador, now living in Long Island, who already had one toddler daughter she’d conceived on purpose with her long-term boyfriend. (She specifically consented to let me interview her for this article.) They got pregnant again as a result, she says, of skipping one day on her birth control patch. She had her heart set on getting her GED; she couldn’t imagine dividing her time between that and two children. But her boyfriend thought differently. “From the beginning he said no,” she says, and informed her he’d leave if she went through with it. “If he doesn’t want to talk about it, I’ll have to make the decision myself,” she resolved. And she meant it. Her English is minimal (I speak Spanish); her entire world is made up of other Salvadorans — all of whom are against abortion. Tormented and isolated, she told no one. “I didn’t feel supported by anybody,” she says. When she finally made up her mind, she was 16 weeks pregnant: too far along for any local clinic. She dropped her child off with a younger cousin, telling her where she was going only at the last minute, and got on the train to the city. She told me she had no idea if her boyfriend would be there when she got home.
Medicaid paid for that young woman’s abortion. But generally, money is a — if not the — major obstacle to abortion. “Low-income or uninsured women have to take extraordinary measures to terminate a pregnancy,” says McPhee. Up to about 10 weeks of pregnancy, clinic abortions cost approximately $350, going up to about $650 at 16 weeks and over $1,000 after 20; for a doctor’s office, tack on a couple hundred more. While the higher number of providers in New York City — that is, competition — keeps costs here relatively low, a late abortion can cost up to $2,000. According to the National Network of Abortion Funds, even the cost of a first-trimester abortion may be more than a family on public assistance receives in one month. Nationally, 62 percent of women come up with the full fee; the remainder pay a reduced fee or are covered by Medicaid or private insurance. Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island (among others) prohibit public funding for abortion except in cases of rape or incest. “Many women have to decide among paying rent, feeding their children or having an abortion,” says a social worker at a clinic that works closely with Haven, pointing out that since the procedure’s cost goes up over time, even as they save they wind up “chasing the fee.” (If a woman shows up without enough cash for the procedure, the clinic works the phones, calling organizations such as the New York Abortion Access Fund for emergency financial assistance.)
Due to Haven’s outreach to out-of-state clinics, some women arrive in New York having heard that someone, somehow will put them up; others show up with a sleeping bag and crossed fingers. Several Haven hosts have put up couples who’d expected to sleep in their cars, one in February. “We heard of one patient who’d spent the night in a McDonald’s,” says Laura, 42, a writer and one of Haven’s coordinators. (It’s Haven’s general policy to identify hosts only by first names.) “We never want that to happen again.”
As far as she knows, it hasn’t. Haven members have hosted a total of 236 women to date, ranging in age from 11 (not a typo) to 41, many for more than one night. The number of patients they housed doubled from 2002 to 2003. Collectively, Haven usually houses about four patients a week, but they’ve been known to place six in one day. Only once in Haven’s history — a snowy Friday in 2003 — were they unable to find a spare bed; the clinic was ultimately able to subsidize the cost of a hotel for the patient (a 12-year-old) and her mother.
Who are these people so willing to move their schedules and furniture to house total strangers? New Yorkers, with our teeny apartments and packed Palm Pilots, generally hate having overnight guests — but hosts say that Haven visitors are anything but in the way. “I love it. I thrive on it. I would do it every night if I could,” says Kathryn, 25, a research assistant at Alan Guttmacher. “I love the connection with people, the momentary bonds that you form. I love seeing people’s lives change for the better right in front of you. It’s different when you’re helping a complete stranger as opposed to your sister. You are required to withhold judgment and live her life for a day.”
Or even just a few hours in a coffee shop. “I had a wonderful experience connecting with a woman I never would have met otherwise,” says Haven coordinator Laura of the time she waited at Starbucks with a Kenyan patient from Massachusetts until her overnight host arrived. “She was so smart and political — the invasion of Iraq was about to happen and we talked a lot about the war and our views. She also gave me really interesting perspectives about Africa,” says Laura. “When her host came we hugged goodbye and as she left I looked back over my shoulder and felt so good. What do I have in common with this woman? We’re just both women, and our lives touch at that moment.” Says Catherine Megill, “Haven’s emphasis from early on was about how you are not this person’s savior, you are not better than her; you’re helping her, but you are helping her because you are sisters.”
The direct, personal nature of hosting is both its payoff and its challenge. In my own experience, being a Haven host requires being really comfortable with abortion — not as an abstraction, but as reality. Nicole had a wee pot belly; the next day, she wouldn’t. Now that I’m married and see birth as something to give, not control, that fourth-sandwich moment did give me pause. But, ultimately, just for that moment.
Many hosts — myself included — are former activists who’d been looking for ways to get politically involved again when they found the group. “I was a member of lots of organizations, but I was frustrated because it felt like my donations were going toward mailings,” says Renee, 34, a designer. “With Haven, 100 percent of the ‘donation’ obviously goes directly to the patient. Haven gets to the heart of things. It puts everything in perspective,” she says, recalling the time she hosted an 11-year-old girl and her mother (a recovering addict supporting a large family, including a son in prison, on a $7.50-an-hour job). The girl looked 17 or 18 (according to her, the sex had been consensual), but she wouldn’t let go of her teddy bear.
“The 11-year-old, and even more so, her mother, had a tremendous impact on me,” says Renee’s husband, Robert, describing the woman’s efforts to reconcile her actions with her born-again Christian beliefs. “She said, ‘I’ll find a way of explaining this to myself. We’ll deal with the sin of this in our own way,’ but what was getting her through this was that she knew from her own life what it would mean for her daughter to have this baby,” he says. “That’s the sort of experience that’s missing from the public debate about abortion.”
The public debate will rage on, for better or for worse. Meanwhile, with Haven’s help, many of the women excluded from it will find a quiet place to get some rest — and then on with their lives.
Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.
Tuesday, Jul 2 2002
Seventeen-year-old Katie* and her grandmother Maria got their very first glimpse of the Big Apple last month. But what brought them here from Boston wasn't a Sox-Yankees game or The Lion King or even more-than-ever patriotism.
Haven Coalition volunteer Suzanne in the space where she hosts women who travel to New York for abortions.
(Photo: Donna Ferrato)
It’s 8 p.m. on a Friday, and Adeena is lying on a bed in my apartment, squirming in pain, her pants unzipped to reveal a disturbingly large belly. We’re watching a DVD she chose from the corner Blockbuster: Coach Carter, starring Samuel Jackson and Ashanti. Jackson has just taken a job at a ghetto high school, and he’s supposed to whip a bunch of thuggish boys into a championship basketball team. Ashanti is tight-jeansed and saucy, but sweet enough to have for a boyfriend Kenyon, the one teammate who’s serious about college. Buff young men make jump shots to hip-hop music and mouth off to Jackson, but the plot is so thin it’s obvious they’ll all be hugging by the end.
I’m a middle-aged white woman with a taste for Film Forum—Coach Carter is not what I’d rent on my own. But I volunteer with a local group called the Haven Coalition that offers free overnight home stays to women who come to New York for late-term abortions. Adeena, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, is 24 years old and 24 weeks pregnant. She’d caught a Greyhound from Pennsylvania earlier that day, and spent the afternoon at a clinic in midtown getting part one of an abortion that will be completed tomorrow. “Pick whatever you want,” I’d said at Blockbuster.
Abortions in New York
Right now, there are more abortions performed in New York City than anyplace in the country. And in the coming years, there will undoubtedly be more as the city once again becomes a haven for women desperate for a procedure unavailable where they live.
Adeena says she’s never been in a white person’s home. She peers at the paintings on my walls and at the jammed bookcases and Cuban bolero CDs and cassettes of classics from the Yiddish theater.
“Can I ask you something?” she inquires. “Why you doing this?”
“You mean sharing my place with you?”
I tell her I’m upset that people like her have such a hard time getting abortions, and besides, I remember being young and being (more than once) in a similar fix. I don’t tell her about the differences: how I always had Blue Cross Blue Shield and never went past seven weeks.
Adeena tells me she makes minimum wage as a health-care aide for mentally disabled children. “You have to pay a lot of attention to them,” she says, and I can see she’s trying to attend to me too. She wants to be sociable, but tonight it’s hard. This afternoon, sticks made of seaweed were inserted into her cervix, and a drug that causes fetal heart failure was injected into her belly. Now the seaweed is getting moist and swelling, and Adeena no longer feels movement in her womb. By tomorrow the swelling will have opened her cervix a few centimeters, allowing a doctor to extract the dead fetus with surgical tools and a vacuum machine.
I don’t know how much Adeena knows about these details. But I know, and so do other Haven members. The organization gives us a handout explaining everything so we’ll be prepared if our guests experience side effects. Of course, some complications go beyond the medical.
Why did she wait so long? we all wonder. We never ask.
It’s not difficult in most urban areas to find an abortion clinic that will treat women in the first trimester, when the vast majority of pregnancies are terminated. But 1 percent of abortions take place after 21 weeks, late into the second trimester, and many of these women must resort to making a pilgrimage to New York City. More late-term abortions are done here than anywhere else in the country. The procedure takes two days from start to finish. There’s a night of waiting in between.
Five years ago, Catherine Megill, a then-23-year-old counselor at a Manhattan abortion clinic, heard about a patient who couldn’t afford a hotel and was going to be sleeping on the street unless someone offered her a couch. Megill offered, and later she began asking friends to do the same. By mid-2001, her project had a name, Haven, and a half-dozen volunteers. It now has about 100 members and is the only group of its kind in the country. “You’ve heard of ‘armchair liberalism,’ ” goes the recruiting pitch. “But have you given any thought to ‘futon liberalism’?” Some 2,000 women have late-term abortions in New York City every year. This year, Haven members have opened their homes to 125 of them (including a 10-year-old).
Most Haven hosts are white, Jewish, well schooled, and political. Some are empty-nesters with beds to spare and memories of the sixties and seventies women’s movement; many are young idealists with matchbox apartments and roommates who don’t mind an extra body crashing in the living room. Meanwhile, most of the women helped by Haven are black and Latina, with GEDs or less, low literacy skills, and not much civic moxie.*
The two sides often baffle each other. Guests have been known to giggle at the gay-oriented titles on a host’s bookshelves, complain about the the uncool quality of her CDs, and demand to take cabs rather than the subway because, they think, that is what New Yorkers do. Some exhibit a shocking obliviousness to the situation they’re in: On the night between the first and second stages of her abortion, one patient told her host that she wanted to go out dancing until 2 a.m. “Plus, they all arrive with huge suitcases,” says Haven member Judith Levine. “Before we went back to the clinic, one woman took an hour to do her hair and makeup. She even had a curling iron.”
Of course, the Haven members have their own preconceptions and idiosyncrasies. New hosts often fear that their houseguests will steal from them. (In the history of Haven, there has never been a reported theft.) And some Havenites insist that their guests eat “healthy” food—fresh fish, for instance, or vegetarian—even if they ask for Big Macs and Ding Dongs. Levine worries that she won’t know how to talk to her guests. “I think my nervousness is about the class difference,” she says. Katha Pollitt, the poet and Nation columnist, buys People magazine when she knows she’s about to be called up for Haven duty. “But then I worry: Maybe that’s patronizing. Maybe they’d rather read The Nicomachean Ethics.”
Sometimes, bridging the divide is just impossible: One patient walked into a volunteer’s home, looked around, said she was going out for a smoke, and never came back.
I deal with my own class anxieties by leaping into mom mode. I’ve just finished raising two kids, so I find it easy to bustle around, all chatty and gingerbready and just a little bossy. (Now, honey, no staying up too late. We’ve got to get up bright and early to go to the clinic tomorrow!) I set up my charges with DVDs, hot tea, perfumed soap, big quilts, soft pillows, and a portable phone with a calling card. For an evening, my performance seems to gloss over our differences—for the most part.
Still, problems arise, often at dinnertime. Shauna, a patient I hosted a few months ago, demanded pasta, but her friend Lisa, who came on the bus with her for moral support, wanted chicken.
“KFC ain’t gonna have no spaghetti!” Shauna scolded.
“Let’s go to El Malécon,” I soothed. It’s a cozy Dominican place in my neighborhood, I explained, with pollo and pasta.
Shauna got her spaghetti and Lisa had her chicken, but both went ballistic when they saw other diners eating yucca and fried plantains. “Nasty!” they said repeatedly, and not exactly quietly. I was annoyed with them, mocking my neighbors, but I think the problem wasn’t so much crude manners as raw nerves. On the subway, patients practically clutch me; when we transfer from the 6 to the 7 to the A, they look like they expect to fall down a rabbit hole. They didn’t come here for a vacation, and many are spooked by the city’s gigantism and noise. Plus all the languages. And the weird lady who’s taking them home for the night to God knows where. I try to imagine being an affluent white kid with a problem and being spirited by a black woman to a South Bronx tenement that contains the opposite of my cavernously tidy and quiet life: Fox on TV, lots of people in the house, boom boxes, secondhand smoke. Not to mention those seaweed things in me, the fetal heart attack, and thinking about what’s scheduled for tomorrow.
The seaweed sticks are giving Adeena bad cramps. The only drug she’s allowed is Advil, and it’s not helping. Amid the pain, she’s struggling to stay with the DVD. Ashanti is pregnant. But her boyfriend, who’s trying for an athletic scholarship, isn’t happy about it. He tells her he doesn’t want a baby. Adeena groans. Whether from the movie or the pain, I can’t tell.
Late-term abortion is serious, hard-core. At 24 weeks, a fetus is at the same stage of development as those gruesome images shown on pro-lifers’ protest placards. “The last woman I hosted showed me her sonogram,” says Jennifer, a 26-year-old host who lives in Carroll Gardens. “Then she pointed out that the fetus was a boy. God! I didn’t know what to say.”
Every once in a while, after hosting a guest, I have bad dreams about sick babies. I have to remind myself that my dreams are just dreams, and that they’re less important than my guests’ realities.
I know that, often as not, it’s poverty that has pushed their bellies into the fifth or sixth month. Medicaid in most states won’t cover abortions, and money for the procedure is hard to round up. Ending a seven- or eight-week pregnancy costs about $400. That’s a lot of money to these women. And the price shoots up as the weeks pass and the procedure grows more complex. At 24 weeks, the price is about $2,000 in New York—much cheaper than the $7,000 it costs in New Jersey, but still a virtually insurmountable sum.
Adeena got here only with the help of the Women’s Medical Fund, a Philadelphia-based group that helps poor Pennsylvanian women pay for abortions. (There’s a similar group in Manhattan: the New York Abortion Access Fund.) “Patients often come in with part of the cost; they’ve borrowed $25 here and $25 there from friends,” says Susan Schewel, director of the Philadelphia fund. “They’ve postponed paying utility bills or they’ve pawned things. We had a woman the other day who sold her dog.”
But chasing an ever-burgeoning fee isn’t the only thing that delays abortions. As Levine puts it, there’s often “some combination of denial and disorganization and general flakiness” going on as well. Some women have breakthrough bleeding, assume they’re having periods, and fail to realize they’re pregnant until after the first trimester. Other women delay seeking an abortion because they’re holding out hope that a relationship is going to work.
One woman I hosted had five kids and a husband in the military in Iraq. “He’s got an immature streak that the war is making worse. I think he’s running around on me over there,” she told me. “What’s for sure is he can’t handle another baby right now, and neither can I.” Her pants strained over her girth. She’d waited this long, she said, because her mother, whom she worshipped, told her that if she went through with it she’d burn in hell. And also because “my sister told me abortions hurt.” I kept my face straight.
The worst story is really no story at all. The first woman Levine ever hosted was here having a late-term abortion because she had simply “put off” dealing with her pregnancy until it was almost too late. The delay certainly didn’t seem to be for financial reasons: “She had a late-model pickup truck that was better than my car,” remembers Levine, “and I wondered, Why am I the one paying for dinner?”
Levine rolled out the red carpet anyway. “I had to tell myself, ‘Every abortion is the choice of the woman having the abortion. This is about somebody else’s body. It’s not President Bush’s body, but it’s not mine, either,’ ” she says. “Being pro-choice is a morality that takes you morally out of the picture.”
Most of the time, it feels good to have helped. I remember a mother who came with her 15-year-old daughter. For a while the girl—her boyfriend was also 15—had tried not to think about the pregnancy. Then she tried to raise the money while keeping the whole thing a secret. When her mother figured it out and got the girl to a doctor, they were told she must have an abortion in four days or it would be too late. The two arrived here in a fever of activity: multiple ATM transactions, hours of driving through the night, and sudden, heart-to-heart conversations. Over tea at my house, the mother gazed at the daughter as if she’d been hit by lightning and lived.
I was relieved for them, but at the same time I felt a twinge of paranoia. What if the older woman was really the girl’s aunt or big sister and just pretending to be her mom? Right now it wouldn’t matter: Unlike many states, New York does not have a parental-consent law requiring that a minor get permission from a parent for an abortion. But this spring, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act, which would make it a crime to give a girl an abortion without her mother’s or father’s okay. The bill hasn’t passed in the Senate yet, but if it does, Haven could be in trouble. “It would only take one crazy person to say, ‘You kidnapped my daughter,’ if you host a 15-year-old,” warned a Haven coordinator at a recent meeting. The organization is incorporating, so that if this happens, its board of directors, and not individual hosts, will take the rap.
Back at my place, Ashanti’s nice boyfriend in Coach Carter has come around and decided to support the baby. But Ashanti has already had the abortion. She says she did it “for me.” But as she elaborates, all she talks about is Kenyon. “I think you should go to school and play ball and do your thing,” she says. “I think you should be all you can.”
“Hey, girl!” Adeena yells at the screen. “How about you?” She turns to me. “What about Ashanti’s thing, huh? What about hers?”
“You’re right,” I say. “What about hers?” It seems like Adeena is about to tell me her story: why she ended up needing the clinic and what she wants out of life when she’s finished there. But the movie credits are rolling and she asks for lights out. I set the alarm, fluff the quilt, and tuck her in.
The next morning, we take the subway together back to the elegant neighborhood where the clinic is located. It is completely unnoticeable from the street, impossible to tell that inside there will be a waiting room that looks like a welfare office, with institutional chairs, soap-opera TV, and dozens of women sitting, sitting, sitting. In the several times I’ve gone there to pick up or drop off a patient, I’ve seen one protester, one time. She was white, well dressed, and birdlike, and when she tremulously scolded a young Latina woman about “killing your baby,” she was practically blown backward by a blast of “Get the hell outta my way what business is it of yours fuckin’ goddamned puta bitch!”
On this day, the birdlike lady is nowhere to be seen. Adeena and I say good-bye at the clinic doors. She thanks me for making her feel “just like you was my moms.” In a few hours, she’ll be back on a bus to Philadelphia, free to do her thing, whatever that may be.
*This article was written before I became involved with Haven so I can’t speak to the demographics of hosts or patients at that time. At the current time (April 2013) we have hosts of various religious persuasions and races. Our patients come from many different backgrounds; there are plenty of white women as well as blacks, Latinas, and other groups. While we don’t collect data on their education, anecdotally, quite a few of the women I myself have hosted are college students, and their knowledge of current events and politics is usually fairly well informed.
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