Emergency Landing

They Come to New York Needing Second-Trimester Abortions. An Underground Network Keeps Them Safe.

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.

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?' "

illustration: Martha Rich

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.

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