Helen Swanson, left, and Mary Brueggemann

ATLANTA (WOMENSENEWS)–When Helen Swanson greets someone at an airport, a bus station, or a hotel, she’s often meeting for the first time a woman she’s promised to shepherd through a turning point in that woman’s life.

Swanson is the lead organizer of the Volunteer Drivers Network, a loosely knit group of Georgians who offer transportation to women seeking abortions. Sometimes the women can’t find friends who support them. Some may be trying to conceal pregnancies from abusive partners. Whatever their reasons, the women don’t have the resources or the support to get to and from a clinic.

“It’s amazing how alone a woman can feel at that time,” Swanson says.

The declining number of clinics and the growing concentration of clinics in cities mean that many women must wait longer and travel farther to exercise their right to end a pregnancy. Ninety-four percent of the counties in Georgia, for example, have no abortion provider, a percentage that mirrors that found in many states, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Between 1996 and 2000, the number of providers in Georgia fell by 37 percent, or from a total of 41 to 26. Nationwide, 87 percent of counties have no abortion provider, according to The Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Amid such declining access to clinics, the need for such transportation services is growing. Many organizations are responding to that need in the same way as the Volunteer Drivers Network and some are providing even more extensive services.

The Haven Coalition in New York City, for instance, offers transportation, child care and a free place to stay. The same is true of NARAL’s Abortion Access Network in Washington state and the Women’s Health Rights Coalition’s ACCESS Project. Shawn Towry, spokeswoman for the National Network of Abortion Funds, says she knows of 15 groups that provide drivers for women but is sure more, loosely organized grassroots services exist.

“For the woman who needs transportation, it’s all or nothing,” says Towry, whose Amherst, Mass., based organization supports community-based abortion funds nationwide. “I’m sure for some women it’s a hardship, but not a barrier. But for some women, it is the barrier.”

Effort Began With One Woman’s Request

That’s the reason Swanson founded the network. A retired nurse who has been a reproductive-rights advocate for more than 30 years, she began in the late 1990s when a clinic asked her to wait with a woman and drive her home afterward. “Little did I know there was such a need,” Swanson says.

One woman became another, until Swanson had accumulated a small handful of drivers whom clinic counselors can now call upon when a patient has no other escort.

Patients need drivers, Swanson says, because abortion providers require patients who receive sedation to have someone stay with them at the clinic and drive them home. For women seeking a first-trimester abortion, which doesn’t require general anesthesia, it’s not always an issue. But for patients who don’t want to be awake during the procedure, or who are in the second-trimester of a pregnancy, a trusted driver is essential.

Many women, however, focused on their need for the procedure, don’t fully grasp that a clinic will refuse to see them if they don’t have someone with them, Swanson says.

“It’s really sad,” she says. “I had a woman in Columbia, South Carolina, tell me the other day, ‘I’ll just drive down and find a way.’ Then they get here and they can’t be seen.”

Women Must Make Their Own Way to Atlanta

The Volunteer Drivers Network, unlike some larger groups elsewhere in the country, such as the Women’s Health Rights Coalition’s ACCESS Project in Oakland, Calif., and Washington NARAL’s Abortion Access Network in Seattle, can’t drive to remote, rural areas to pick up women. The group doesn’t have the resources–the drivers are too few, the dollars are too rare.

“I tell women, ‘You’ve got to find a way to Atlanta,'” Swanson says. Once there, the women often receive emotional support from the volunteers. “I just try to keep a sense of connectedness,” she says. “That’s a real lack in a lot of people’s lives. They don’t have a lot of connectedness–to the man, their friends, their church.”

But for some women, even making it to Atlanta is nearly impossible, she says. While she vigilantly guards patient confidentiality, she recalls stories of women who couldn’t find one friend in her small town to even drive her to a Greyhound station.

Nancy Boothe, executive director of the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, says that the Volunteer Drivers Network has “literally been a lifesaver.”

“Sometimes people forget that on occasion women are having medically necessary abortions,” Boothe says. “For others it simply allows them to maintain their anonymity. We’ve had people who’ve been in battering situations.”

A lack of transportation can have a domino affect on a woman’s reproductive decisions, driving up the cost of an abortion and making it less accessible. Errin Vuley, executive director of Georgians for Choice, in Atlanta, says that when women must scramble to find a way to a provider, it can delay an abortion for weeks–resulting in a more expensive, lengthy procedure.

For instance, a woman who finds out she’s pregnant in her eighth week of pregnancy, might pay $200 to $400 for an outpatient, first-trimester abortion. But she may be afraid to tell anyone, or has no one to tell. By the time she finds someone, it’s week 13. Now, the cost could be $400 to $700–and the money she scraped together won’t cover the cost. Each week after that, procedures cost about $400 more a week, take longer, and require much more commitment from the driver. (The ambiguous language of the federal so-called “partial-birth abortion” law, which will go into effect 24 hours after the president signs the bill, may mean that no abortions are available anywhere in the United States after 13 weeks. Legal challenges may forestall its implementation, however.)

Missed work and child care costs may mount, and any waiting period can compound the problem. Georgia doesn’t impose a waiting period on women seeking an abortion (although a bill requiring one has been passed by the state Senate), but 17 states do, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Transportation likely would not be such an issue, Vuley says, if abortion carried less of a stigma and more women felt comfortable discussing their reproductive choices. While 43 percent of women will have an abortion during their lives, according to The Alan Guttmacher Institute, few women are open about their choices, fearing judgment or reprisals from unsupportive family, friends or co-workers. Many women find themselves pregnant not knowing whether any of their friends or family has undergone an abortion.

“Anti-choice people have done a good job creating a culture of shame,” Vuley says. “I think that’s something we need to work on.”

Karen Shugart is a journalist in Tennessee.

For more information:

georgians for choice.org:

Women’s Health Rights Coalition’s ACCESS Project:

National Network of Abortion Funds: