Emergency Landing

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

Without really intending to, Catherine re-created a network that existed pre-Roe v. 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."

illustration: Martha Rich

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 Manifesta and 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.


Women who need help from Haven should ask for a referral from the clinic of their choice. Women who'd like to volunteer should write to haven@nnaf.org.

If you are in New York City and need an abortion, call the Women's Healthline at 230-1111 (in both the 212 and 718 area codes). You can also look in the yellow pages under "Abortion Providers." (Ignore "Abortion Alternatives," which lists anti-choice "Crisis Pregnancy Centers.")

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