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The New Underground Railroad

Thousands of women come to New York each year for late-term abortions. A hundred New Yorkers take them in.

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Haven Coalition volunteer Suzanne in the space where she hosts women who travel to New York for abortions.  

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.

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.


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