Emergency Landing

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

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.

illustration: Martha Rich

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.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets