The New Underground Railroad

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

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.

This year, 125 women have stayed on the foldouts, air mattresses, and guest beds of Haven members, including Jennifer, pictured here.Photo: Donna Ferrato

The two sides often baffle each other. Guests have been known to giggle at the gay-oriented titles on a host’s bookshelves, complain about the the uncool quality of her CDs, and demand to take cabs rather than the subway because, they think, that is what New Yorkers do. Some exhibit a shocking obliviousness to the situation they’re in: On the night between the first and second stages of her abortion, one patient told her host that she wanted to go out dancing until 2 a.m. “Plus, they all arrive with huge suitcases,” says Haven member Judith Levine. “Before we went back to the clinic, one woman took an hour to do her hair and makeup. She even had a curling iron.”

Of course, the Haven members have their own preconceptions and idiosyncrasies. New hosts often fear that their houseguests will steal from them. (In the history of Haven, there has never been a reported theft.) And some Havenites insist that their guests eat “healthy” food—fresh fish, for instance, or vegetarian—even if they ask for Big Macs and Ding Dongs. Levine worries that she won’t know how to talk to her guests. “I think my nervousness is about the class difference,” she says. Katha Pollitt, the poet and Nation columnist, buys People magazine when she knows she’s about to be called up for Haven duty. “But then I worry: Maybe that’s patronizing. Maybe they’d rather read The Nicomachean Ethics.” Sometimes, bridging the divide is just impossible: One patient walked into a volunteer’s home, looked around, said she was going out for a smoke, and never came back. I deal with my own class anxieties by leaping into mom mode. I’ve just finished raising two kids, so I find it easy to bustle around, all chatty and gingerbready and just a little bossy. (Now, honey, no staying up too late. We’ve got to get up bright and early to go to the clinic tomorrow!) I set up my charges with DVDs, hot tea, perfumed soap, big quilts, soft pillows, and a portable phone with a calling card. For an evening, my performance seems to gloss over our differences—for the most part.

Still, problems arise, often at dinnertime. Shauna, a patient I hosted a few months ago, demanded pasta, but her friend Lisa, who came on the bus with her for moral support, wanted chicken.

“KFC ain’t gonna have no spaghetti!” Shauna scolded.

“Let’s go to El Malécon,” I soothed. It’s a cozy Dominican place in my neighborhood, I explained, with pollo and pasta.

Shauna got her spaghetti and Lisa had her chicken, but both went ballistic when they saw other diners eating yucca and fried plantains. “Nasty!” they said repeatedly, and not exactly quietly. I was annoyed with them, mocking my neighbors, but I think the problem wasn’t so much crude manners as raw nerves. On the subway, patients practically clutch me; when we transfer from the 6 to the 7 to the A, they look like they expect to fall down a rabbit hole. They didn’t come here for a vacation, and many are spooked by the city’s gigantism and noise. Plus all the languages. And the weird lady who’s taking them home for the night to God knows where. I try to imagine being an affluent white kid with a problem and being spirited by a black woman to a South Bronx tenement that contains the opposite of my cavernously tidy and quiet life: Fox on TV, lots of people in the house, boom boxes, secondhand smoke. Not to mention those seaweed things in me, the fetal heart attack, and thinking about what’s scheduled for tomorrow.

The seaweed sticks are giving Adeena bad cramps. The only drug she’s allowed is Advil, and it’s not helping. Amid the pain, she’s struggling to stay with the DVD. Ashanti is pregnant. But her boyfriend, who’s trying for an athletic scholarship, isn’t happy about it. He tells her he doesn’t want a baby. Adeena groans. Whether from the movie or the pain, I can’t tell.

Late-term abortion is serious, hard-core. At 24 weeks, a fetus is at the same stage of development as those gruesome images shown on pro-lifers’ protest placards. “The last woman I hosted showed me her sonogram,” says Jennifer, a 26-year-old host who lives in Carroll Gardens. “Then she pointed out that the fetus was a boy. God! I didn’t know what to say.”

Every once in a while, after hosting a guest, I have bad dreams about sick babies. I have to remind myself that my dreams are just dreams, and that they’re less important than my guests’ realities.

I know that, often as not, it’s poverty that has pushed their bellies into the fifth or sixth month. Medicaid in most states won’t cover abortions, and money for the procedure is hard to round up. Ending a seven- or eight-week pregnancy costs about $400. That’s a lot of money to these women. And the price shoots up as the weeks pass and the procedure grows more complex. At 24 weeks, the price is about $2,000 in New York—much cheaper than the $7,000 it costs in New Jersey, but still a virtually insurmountable sum.

Adeena got here only with the help of the Women’s Medical Fund, a Philadelphia-based group that helps poor Pennsylvanian women pay for abortions. (There’s a similar group in Manhattan: the New York Abortion Access Fund.) “Patients often come in with part of the cost; they’ve borrowed $25 here and $25 there from friends,” says Susan Schewel, director of the Philadelphia fund. “They’ve postponed paying utility bills or they’ve pawned things. We had a woman the other day who sold her dog.”

But chasing an ever-burgeoning fee isn’t the only thing that delays abortions. As Levine puts it, there’s often “some combination of denial and disorganization and general flakiness” going on as well. Some women have breakthrough bleeding, assume they’re having periods, and fail to realize they’re pregnant until after the first trimester. Other women delay seeking an abortion because they’re holding out hope that a relationship is going to work.

One woman I hosted had five kids and a husband in the military in Iraq. “He’s got an immature streak that the war is making worse. I think he’s running around on me over there,” she told me. “What’s for sure is he can’t handle another baby right now, and neither can I.” Her pants strained over her girth. She’d waited this long, she said, because her mother, whom she worshipped, told her that if she went through with it she’d burn in hell. And also because “my sister told me abortions hurt.” I kept my face straight.

The worst story is really no story at all. The first woman Levine ever hosted was here having a late-term abortion because she had simply “put off” dealing with her pregnancy until it was almost too late. The delay certainly didn’t seem to be for financial reasons: “She had a late-model pickup truck that was better than my car,” remembers Levine, “and I wondered, Why am I the one paying for dinner?

Levine rolled out the red carpet anyway. “I had to tell myself, ‘Every abortion is the choice of the woman having the abortion. This is about somebody else’s body. It’s not President Bush’s body, but it’s not mine, either,’ ” she says. “Being pro-choice is a morality that takes you morally out of the picture.”

Most of the time, it feels good to have helped. I remember a mother who came with her 15-year-old daughter. For a while the girl—her boyfriend was also 15—had tried not to think about the pregnancy. Then she tried to raise the money while keeping the whole thing a secret. When her mother figured it out and got the girl to a doctor, they were told she must have an abortion in four days or it would be too late. The two arrived here in a fever of activity: multiple ATM transactions, hours of driving through the night, and sudden, heart-to-heart conversations. Over tea at my house, the mother gazed at the daughter as if she’d been hit by lightning and lived.

I was relieved for them, but at the same time I felt a twinge of paranoia. What if the older woman was really the girl’s aunt or big sister and just pretending to be her mom? Right now it wouldn’t matter: Unlike many states, New York does not have a parental-consent law requiring that a minor get permission from a parent for an abortion. But this spring, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act, which would make it a crime to give a girl an abortion without her mother’s or father’s okay. The bill hasn’t passed in the Senate yet, but if it does, Haven could be in trouble. “It would only take one crazy person to say, ‘You kidnapped my daughter,’ if you host a 15-year-old,” warned a Haven coordinator at a recent meeting. The organization is incorporating, so that if this happens, its board of directors, and not individual hosts, will take the rap.

Back at my place, Ashanti’s nice boyfriend in Coach Carter has come around and decided to support the baby. But Ashanti has already had the abortion. She says she did it “for me.” But as she elaborates, all she talks about is Kenyon. “I think you should go to school and play ball and do your thing,” she says. “I think you should be all you can.”

“Hey, girl!” Adeena yells at the screen. “How about you?” She turns to me. “What about Ashanti’s thing, huh? What about hers?”

“You’re right,” I say. “What about hers?” It seems like Adeena is about to tell me her story: why she ended up needing the clinic and what she wants out of life when she’s finished there. But the movie credits are rolling and she asks for lights out. I set the alarm, fluff the quilt, and tuck her in.

The next morning, we take the subway together back to the elegant neighborhood where the clinic is located. It is completely unnoticeable from the street, impossible to tell that inside there will be a waiting room that looks like a welfare office, with institutional chairs, soap-opera TV, and dozens of women sitting, sitting, sitting. In the several times I’ve gone there to pick up or drop off a patient, I’ve seen one protester, one time. She was white, well dressed, and birdlike, and when she tremulously scolded a young Latina woman about “killing your baby,” she was practically blown backward by a blast of “Get the hell outta my way what business is it of yours fuckin’ goddamned puta bitch!

On this day, the birdlike lady is nowhere to be seen. Adeena and I say good-bye at the clinic doors. She thanks me for making her feel “just like you was my moms.” In a few hours, she’ll be back on a bus to Philadelphia, free to do her thing, whatever that may be.

Abortions in New York
Right now, there are more abortions performed in New York City than anyplace in the country. And in the coming years, there will undoubtedly be more as the city once again becomes a haven for women desperate for a procedure unavailable where they live.

See also:
How New York Became the Abortion Capital of America

The New Underground Railroad