Shelter from the storm

They come from faraway towns where second-term abortions are impossible to find. Catherine Megill and the Haven Coalition are there to help them.

Published June 9, 2004 6:17AM (EDT)

Nicole (not her real name) spent a night on our sofa bed in February. Neither my husband nor I had met Nicole, and she'd never been to New York. On the subway over the Manhattan Bridge, I pointed out the touristy seaport, the commuter ferries, the missing-tooth space where the twin towers had been. Problem was, we seemed to be on the filthiest train in the city -- straight off the set of "The Warriors" -- with windows so grimy we could hardly see outside. I told her the trip back in the next morning would be better.

She was tall and thin; not bony, but smooth, like dark clay someone had gently stretched up from the ground. When she told me she used to run track, I wasn't surprised. She was 19 or 20, a college student from Pennsylvania who'd just scored a full scholarship to an even better school than the one she was attending. Her giant smile was the opposite of her teeny, faint voice, which sounded like a radio station not quite tuned in. She was craving peanut butter and jelly -- Skippy and grape -- on that soft white potato bread. She insisted on making it herself. As we chatted at my table, I watched her eat one, two, three sandwiches, then reach for the knife again. This kid really puts it away, I thought, impressed. And then I remembered: Right. She's pregnant.

I brought Nicole a heating pad and some Advil and we watched "American Idol," finding common ground: Fantasia = good; Matt Rogers = heinous. "I just can't be pregnant now," she said at one point in her hazy voice, staring ahead. And later: "I just want to be home." She called her mom and was ready for bed before 10. First thing in the morning, my husband took her to the clinic; early that afternoon, we heard, Nicole's boyfriend picked her up and took her home. The view from the bridge, my husband said, had been bright and clear.

Nicole was the first person we hosted as members of a New York-based organization called the Haven Coalition, founded in 2001 by abortion rights advocate Catherine Megill. Haven is a group of about 50 New York City households that offer free overnight housing to women coming from surrounding states -- some as far as Maine -- for second-trimester abortions, which are rarely available closer to home. (Second-trimester procedures take two days because the cervix is dilated overnight, using sterile sticks of seaweed called laminaria.)

Why do they come to New York? While Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land, making abortion broadly legal, actual access to it is often blocked by thickets of state laws and persistent stigmas. According to Haven, legal and logistical restrictions on abortion -- parental consent requirements, lack of Medicaid funding, and the like -- push many women past the date at which services are available in their area, and therefore into New York. Here, abortions are available up to 24 weeks of pregnancy -- longer than in most nearby states, even in the liberal Northeast -- and are significantly more accessible, both legally and financially. Even as "Save Roe!" alarms ring louder, Megill's and Haven's efforts -- and the need for them -- are a reminder that for women with limited resources, "choice" is a mere concept; their rights may already hinge not on the courts, but on sandwiches, bus tickets and the futons of strangers. Women seeking later-term abortions "have been trained to feel shame and guilt, but when you hear their stories you could never feel that you could judge this decision," says Megill. "Well, I guess you could, but that means you're not listening."

Megill, 27, founded Haven when the issue of access to abortion was, literally, brought home to her. Having served as hot-line director for the National Abortion Federation in Washington, she'd moved to New York to work as a clinic counselor. (No longer a host, she's now working at a homeless shelter in Montreal and planning to go to medical school.) One day, a desperate colleague called from another clinic to see if Megill would let an out-of-town patient -- who could hardly afford an abortion, much less a Manhattan hotel -- crash on her couch. She said yes that night -- and many, many more. She also began asking other counselors and friends if they'd pitch in.

The person who inspired Megill to make Haven official was a 20-year-old rape victim she hosted who'd been living on and off the Philadelphia streets. "She was very shy. She didn't talk much, just kept her head down," says Megill. "She did say she hadn't been able to sleep because she didn't have anywhere safe; she would always worry about being assaulted again. At one point I said, 'I'm just going down [to the basement] to get the laundry,' and she said, 'I'll come with you.' We walked into the elevator, and she walked into my arms and gave me a hug." Once they talked more, they found out they had much more in common than they'd assumed: minister fathers, a strict upbringing. "In the morning I said, 'Did you sleep?'" says Megill. "And she said, 'I was able to sleep because you were here.'

"I completely melted," says Megill. She gave the woman her address and heard nothing from her for a year. Then a letter came. "She said she was getting her life back on track," says Megill, "and that she would never forget what had happened."

That did it. Megill started posting fliers and calling people to organize meetings. The first meeting, held at a Brooklyn church in May 2001, pulled in five people. Each of them told two friends, who in turn told two more friends, and so on. Then some ink in the Village Voice about the fledgling group "blew the whole thing up," says Megill. "I got a hundred e-mails in a week, people congratulating us and asking where can I send money. I wasn't expecting the public to respond so strongly. I mean, the need is there, and there was something very clear we could do about it. I didn't think of it as a big deal," she says.

She's not being self-effacing so much as describing her feminist philosophy. "I like to talk about the difference between what I call 'theoretical' feminism and 'practical' feminism," says Megill. With Haven, "It comes down to supporting women, not just women's rights. Supporting actual women, flesh and blood."

And Haven is about as nuts-and-bolts practical as it gets. Haven has no office and no overhead -- just a cellphone and a rotating team of coordinators who screen new members and act as liaisons between clinics and hosts. Most Haven members are on call to put up patients (and sometimes their moms, siblings or partners, too). A few make themselves available for rides or to sit with a patient at Starbucks from the clinic's closing time until the overnight host can get there.

"I think of Haven as an underground railroad for women seeking abortions," says Shauna Shames, 24, an early Haven member and coordinator who in 2002 helped double the number of participating hosts. She's now assistant to National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy in Washington. "When I first heard about it, it seemed like the Jane Network that existed pre-Roe [to help women get safe but illegal abortions]."

This comparison might seem peculiar, even high-drama, given that abortion is legal. However, advocates say, there's legal, and there's accessible. With 87 percent of U.S. counties lacking an abortion provider and one-quarter of women seeking abortions traveling 50 miles or more to get them, according to nonprofit research and policy organization the Alan Guttmacher Institute, abortion rights are not even halfway there. As Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt writes in her new book, "The War on Choice," "Rights without access are no rights at all."

Haven is unique to New York, but similar organizations have sprung up to address access issues in other parts of the country. The Women's Health Rights Coalition ACCESS Project in San Francisco helps women with transportation and housing, as do NARAL's Abortion Access Network in Seattle and the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. In Georgia, where 94 percent of counties lack abortion providers, the Volunteer Drivers Network offers transportation to and from clinics (and that's only after patients can get themselves to Atlanta).

Rights in New York are, at least by comparison, rights indeed. Here, abortion is available to 24 weeks, covered by Medicaid, and subject to few legal restrictions. On NARAL's state-by-state abortion access "report card," New York gets an A.

Our neighbors to the southwest, by contrast, get an F. A predominant number of Haven patients are from Pennsylvania, where women seeking abortions (unavailable in 75 percent of the state's counties) are required to undergo what abortion-rights advocates call "biased counseling": a state-sanctioned lecture about their "unborn child." Abortion advocates blame such restrictions for complicating and delaying an act that is hardly simple to begin with. Especially for low-income women, actually getting an abortion is rarely a simple two-step process of 1) making a decision, and 2) making an appointment. By the time one 41-year-old Guatemalan native came to terms with her choice, which went against her faith and that of her mother, whom she lived with and cared for, plus the fact that her longtime boyfriend left when she revealed the pregnancy, she was too far along to get an abortion at home in Rhode Island. She took the bus to New York; health complications kept her in Haven homes -- lying to her family and employer about what she was doing -- for two nights.

Pennsylvania and Rhode Island aren't the only problem states. Counseling is also required in Delaware, Maine and Massachusetts, as is adult (or judicial) consent for minors seeking abortions. Some clinics perform abortions only one day a week; some "clinics" are not clinics at all, but rather anti-abortion outfits dissembling themselves through sleight of ad. Because of such detours and roadblocks -- often requiring travel to multiple appointments, missed work and pay, and extra child care -- women frequently find themselves in their second trimester before they know it.

Quite a few women get there literally before they know it; they simply do not realize they're pregnant. Many are the unlucky embodiments of their birth control's "failure rate"; others experience first-trimester bleeding and assume it's a period. Last November, Haven hosted a 21-weeks-pregnant woman from upstate who'd had a tubal ligation. (Ultrasounds are also not 100 percent consistent or accurate; a second exam may show a woman to be further along than she was initially told.)

Even women with planned pregnancies can get caught in the same tangle of restrictions. "You can't do amniocentesis until 15 weeks, when you're already in your second trimester," says Sue McPhee, spokeswoman for the Family Planning Association of Maine. If major "fetal distress" is discovered (that is, severe enough to warrant termination), there's still a problem. "There are no physicians that I'm aware of at this time who perform second-trimester abortions in this state," she says. "When something goes really wrong with a very wanted pregnancy, on top of that trauma, you're being sent out of state."

Confusion over a traumatic decision -- and the isolation that often comes with it -- can also make time tick by. We recently hosted a 23-year-old woman from El Salvador, now living in Long Island, who already had one toddler daughter she'd conceived on purpose with her long-term boyfriend. (She specifically consented to let me interview her for this article.) They got pregnant again as a result, she says, of skipping one day on her birth control patch. She had her heart set on getting her GED; she couldn't imagine dividing her time between that and two children. But her boyfriend thought differently. "From the beginning he said no," she says, and informed her he'd leave if she went through with it. "If he doesn't want to talk about it, I'll have to make the decision myself," she resolved. And she meant it. Her English is minimal (I speak Spanish); her entire world is made up of other Salvadorans -- all of whom are against abortion. Tormented and isolated, she told no one. "I didn't feel supported by anybody," she says. When she finally made up her mind, she was 16 weeks pregnant: too far along for any local clinic. She dropped her child off with a younger cousin, telling her where she was going only at the last minute, and got on the train to the city. She told me she had no idea if her boyfriend would be there when she got home.

Medicaid paid for that young woman's abortion. But generally, money is a -- if not the -- major obstacle to abortion. "Low-income or uninsured women have to take extraordinary measures to terminate a pregnancy," says McPhee. Up to about 10 weeks of pregnancy, clinic abortions cost approximately $350, going up to about $650 at 16 weeks and over $1,000 after 20; for a doctor's office, tack on a couple hundred more. While the higher number of providers in New York City -- that is, competition -- keeps costs here relatively low, a late abortion can cost up to $2,000. According to the National Network of Abortion Funds, even the cost of a first-trimester abortion may be more than a family on public assistance receives in one month. Nationally, 62 percent of women come up with the full fee; the remainder pay a reduced fee or are covered by Medicaid or private insurance. Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island (among others) prohibit public funding for abortion except in cases of rape or incest. "Many women have to decide among paying rent, feeding their children or having an abortion," says a social worker at a clinic that works closely with Haven, pointing out that since the procedure's cost goes up over time, even as they save they wind up "chasing the fee." (If a woman shows up without enough cash for the procedure, the clinic works the phones, calling organizations such as the New York Abortion Access Fund for emergency financial assistance.)

Due to Haven's outreach to out-of-state clinics, some women arrive in New York having heard that someone, somehow will put them up; others show up with a sleeping bag and crossed fingers. Several Haven hosts have put up couples who'd expected to sleep in their cars, one in February. "We heard of one patient who'd spent the night in a McDonald's," says Laura, 42, a writer and one of Haven's coordinators. (It's Haven's general policy to identify hosts only by first names.) "We never want that to happen again."

As far as she knows, it hasn't. Haven members have hosted a total of 236 women to date, ranging in age from 11 (not a typo) to 41, many for more than one night. The number of patients they housed doubled from 2002 to 2003. Collectively, Haven usually houses about four patients a week, but they've been known to place six in one day. Only once in Haven's history -- a snowy Friday in 2003 -- were they unable to find a spare bed; the clinic was ultimately able to subsidize the cost of a hotel for the patient (a 12-year-old) and her mother.

Who are these people so willing to move their schedules and furniture to house total strangers? New Yorkers, with our teeny apartments and packed Palm Pilots, generally hate having overnight guests -- but hosts say that Haven visitors are anything but in the way. "I love it. I thrive on it. I would do it every night if I could," says Kathryn, 25, a research assistant at Alan Guttmacher. "I love the connection with people, the momentary bonds that you form. I love seeing people's lives change for the better right in front of you. It's different when you're helping a complete stranger as opposed to your sister. You are required to withhold judgment and live her life for a day."

Or even just a few hours in a coffee shop. "I had a wonderful experience connecting with a woman I never would have met otherwise," says Haven coordinator Laura of the time she waited at Starbucks with a Kenyan patient from Massachusetts until her overnight host arrived. "She was so smart and political -- the invasion of Iraq was about to happen and we talked a lot about the war and our views. She also gave me really interesting perspectives about Africa," says Laura. "When her host came we hugged goodbye and as she left I looked back over my shoulder and felt so good. What do I have in common with this woman? We're just both women, and our lives touch at that moment." Says Catherine Megill, "Haven's emphasis from early on was about how you are not this person's savior, you are not better than her; you're helping her, but you are helping her because you are sisters."

The direct, personal nature of hosting is both its payoff and its challenge. In my own experience, being a Haven host requires being really comfortable with abortion -- not as an abstraction, but as reality. Nicole had a wee pot belly; the next day, she wouldn't. Now that I'm married and see birth as something to give, not control, that fourth-sandwich moment did give me pause. But, ultimately, just for that moment.

Many hosts -- myself included -- are former activists who'd been looking for ways to get politically involved again when they found the group. "I was a member of lots of organizations, but I was frustrated because it felt like my donations were going toward mailings," says Renee, 34, a designer. "With Haven, 100 percent of the 'donation' obviously goes directly to the patient. Haven gets to the heart of things. It puts everything in perspective," she says, recalling the time she hosted an 11-year-old girl and her mother (a recovering addict supporting a large family, including a son in prison, on a $7.50-an-hour job). The girl looked 17 or 18 (according to her, the sex had been consensual), but she wouldn't let go of her teddy bear.

"The 11-year-old, and even more so, her mother, had a tremendous impact on me," says Renee's husband, Robert, describing the woman's efforts to reconcile her actions with her born-again Christian beliefs. "She said, 'I'll find a way of explaining this to myself. We'll deal with the sin of this in our own way,' but what was getting her through this was that she knew from her own life what it would mean for her daughter to have this baby," he says. "That's the sort of experience that's missing from the public debate about abortion."

The public debate will rage on, for better or for worse. Meanwhile, with Haven's help, many of the women excluded from it will find a quiet place to get some rest -- and then on with their lives.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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