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The Abortion Capital of America

When the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) was founded in 1969, it made New York its first target. Several states had already passed reform laws, but for the most part they allowed abortions only if the health of the mother was at risk. The push for repeal in New York was built in stages, first by the referral system, then by pro-abortion activists converting Democratic clubs in New York City to the cause, precinct by precinct. The turning point in the debate came when several Long Island legislators signed on to the bill. The Times also joined the cause, printing a steady beat of pro-repeal editorials.

Regulating abortion is like playing whack-a-mole. Every time a state tightens its laws, abortions rise somewhere else.

The crucial roll call came in the New York Assembly on April 9, 1970. The bill appeared to be doomed by a single vote. As the vote neared completion, a trembling, bespectacled man in a black suit rose to his feet, tears welling in his eyes. “I realize, Mr. Speaker,” Assemblyman George M. Michaels said, “that I am terminating my political career, but I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill. I ask that my vote be changed from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’ ” Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the bill into law, making New York the only state in the country with abortion on demand for all comers.

In the two and a half years between July 1970, when New York’s new abortion law took effect, and January 1973, when the Supreme Court’s Roe decision legalized the procedure everywhere, 350,000 women came to New York for an abortion, including 19,000 Floridians; 30,000 each from Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois; and thousands more from Canada. By the end of 1971, 61 percent of the abortions performed in New York were on out-of-state residents.

Commercialization crept back into the abortion business. The clergymen, who had never taken any money for their work, were pushed aside by heavily advertised commercial referral services, which targeted out-of-state women, charging them about $100 to find a New York provider. New York’s abortion monopoly produced a booming new industry. One service even flew an airplane banner ad over Miami Beach.

The statistics from the time show that one of the benefits of legalization in New York was that New York women were having abortions earlier. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reported that no more than 10 percent of the city’s residents in 1972 had abortions after twelve weeks of pregnancy. For women traveling to New York City from non-border states, the rate of abortions after twelve weeks was 23 percent because of the time it took to find a provider and arrange travel and lodging in the city, especially difficult for young women who had barely ever left their own state.

The other obvious lesson from the seventies is that women with resources almost always have access to abortion. For those who couldn’t afford a trip to New York, coat hangers and knitting needles, the ghastly symbols of the early abortion-rights movement, remained a fact of life.

The abortion capital of New York is at the corner of Bleecker and Mott. That’s the home of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Center, the largest abortion provider in New York. Doctors at this one clinic perform some 11,000 abortions per year. “I’m sure we provide a good chunk of the abortions in the U.S.,” says Dr. Maureen Paul, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood New York. In fact, the Margaret Sanger Center provides about one in every ten abortions in New York and about one in every thousand abortions in the United States.

The clinic tells a lot about how the abortion debate has changed. As the largest brand name in the reproductive-health- services business, Planned Parenthood has historically been a magnet for protesters. But the streets outside the Sanger Center are usually quiet. Across the country, violence against providers has subsided after cresting in the nineties. “I was in Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts when we used to have huge blockades and people Kryptonite-locking themselves to operating tables,” says Dr. Paul. “We still see some of that, but there has been a shift. The antis don’t spend as much time in places that they are not welcome.”

Medical abortions, those produced by the abortifacient mifepristone, once known as RU-486, have been available in New York City since 1997, three years before formal FDA approval. But the drug is not widely prescribed here. It is catching on faster in places where abortion is more taboo; Texas, Missouri, and South Carolina all have higher rates of use than New York City. Utah, the most conservative state in America, has the highest percentage of medical abortions, 24.1. Down on Bleecker Street, Dr. Paul says she’s seeing a growing black market in misoprostol, the drug that is taken with mifepristone to induce abortion but which is cheaper and easier to obtain than its sibling. The drug is popular with some immigrants from Latin America, where it is often used in places where abortion is illegal. “When you just use misoprostol alone, the success rate is very low,” says Dr. Paul.