Shauna Shames and Catherine McGill

(WOMENSENEWS)–Shauna Shames often lets complete strangers sleep on her New York sofa bed. She cooks for them too. And she quietly arranges for others in the city to do the same. Shames does this because she believes that money should not interfere with a woman’s right to choose.

As the coordinator for the Haven Coalition, Shames oversees an ad hoc network of approximately 30 pro-choice advocates who live in New York City. All of them provide free overnight accommodations for impoverished women who have come to the city to get a second-trimester abortion, that is legally prohibited or just too hard to get in their own area, and cannot afford the cost of a hotel room and meals.

“I call Haven the Underground Railroad for women seeking abortions,” says Shames, describing how she recently hosted a 41-year-old woman who needed an abortion because she was already barely supporting her mother and two children on her factory earnings and would lose her job if she had another baby. Shames put her up for two nights. Despite her insistence that the woman rest, Shames recalls with a smile how “she kept sneaking back into the kitchen to wash the dishes.”

Shames has seen some women come to New York just a day or two too late for a second-trimester abortion and have to go back home to carry their unwanted pregnancies to term. Some women are sent home because advocacy groups can’t raise the necessary funds to pay for their abortions. Shames expects women to rely more heavily on Haven as abortion rights are chipped away under the Bush administration.

New York Laws Make State a Magnet

Since it started two years ago, Haven has hosted over 100 women. Haven currently services four clinics: Parkmed Eastern Women’s Center, Westside Women’s Medical Pavilion, Planned Parenthood of New York City and Bronx Lebanon Hospital Women’s Center. Soon, Haven will expand to a three-person team from having one coordinator. The new team will include a clinic outreach coordinator. All the volunteers live in New York City.

The guests have ranged in age from 11 to 42. (Family members usually accompany the younger ones.) Many came because they’d passed the cutoff point for an abortion in their own state. While all states are constitutionally required topermit pre-viability abortions (which is usually defined by around 20 weeks), New York allows abortions up to 24 weeks, giving it one of the most liberal abortion laws in the nation.In addition, individual state restrictions, such as waiting periods and parental consent laws, combined with a lack of providers (their numbers have dropped amid rising violence against them), encumber a woman’s right to an abortion even in the first trimester. According to the National Abortion Federation based in Washington, D.C., 87 percent of U.S. counties offer no abortionservices. And even in places where they do, service can be limited. In Maine, for instance, a woman would find it difficult if not impossible to find anyone offering abortions past 15 weeks.

Many of the women who come to New York City arrive from neighboring states like Maine. Since Erin Mahoney joined Haven as a host about one year ago, she has on four occasions turned her futon couch over to women from Pennsylvania.Despite the inconvenience of hosting women in her pint-sized apartment, she says the experience has been very positive, although “it’s hard when you hear what these women have gone through.”

For instance, Peggy (whose name’s been changed) arrived at the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City after a 20-hour bus ride from rural Pennsylvania. She’d made coverage arrangements for her two children and had lied about the nature of her trip to avoid small-town gossip. Recently separated from her husband, it’d been hard for Peggy to decide whether to have an abortion. Once she decided that she could not afford another child, she was already into her second trimester.

Women Arrive With Thin Wallets, Much Hope

Even though a second-trimester abortion would cost around $2,000–far more than the usual costs for a first-trimester procedure, which costs close to
$400–Peggy stepped off the bus in New York with only a couple hundred dollars. Parkmed Eastern Women’s Center came through for her, tapping a number of donors, including the New York Abortion Access Fund, a volunteer organization that raises abortion funds for needy women. It’s one of about 100 similar groups around the nation that make up the National Network of Abortion Funds, based in Massachusetts.

Heidi (who doesn’t want to reveal her last name), a counselor at Parkmed Eastern Women’s Center, says women seek second-trimester abortions for many reasons. These include delays caused by state restrictions such as parental-consent laws and waiting periods or an inability to afford an abortion. Many women, she says, go into the second trimester simply because they’re unaware that they are pregnant. “They may have bled through the first trimester and didn’t realize they were pregnant,” she says, “or they’re in denial.” There are also those, she says, “who lead chaotic lives. They’re substance abusers, or they have six children and a husband in jail, or they live in shelters and it’s almost impossible for them to get a day for someone to watch their children and go for the procedure.”

Haven was founded in 2001 by Catherine McGill, then a counselor in a private abortion clinic. Shames says patients would arrive at McGills’ clinic saying they’d spent the night in their car or in the train or bus station. Because of her role as counselor, McGill couldn’t put the women up herself because of her work at the clinic, so she began informally asking friends to do it.

When McGill left New York City in 2002 to attend medical school (she plans on becoming an abortion provider), Shames took over as coordinator. First off, she doubled the number of volunteers–to 30 from 14. She also formed “Starbuckers;” volunteers who will “meet and hang out with a woman in a Starbucks for an hour and two until the host is available to pick them up.”

Besides being on call 24-hours a day to arrange day-of hosting, Shames conducts outreach to clinics outside the Haven network and meets with volunteers to discuss how things are going. Shames is relinquishing the Haven reins in September, when she leaves New York to get her Ph.D. in government at Georgetown University. But she says she may start a chapter in D.C. “It’s one thing to get out and march for women’s rights,” she says. “It’s instant gratification to host women who have been through these amazing hardships to get here.”

Carla Goldstein, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of New York City says, “Here in New York City and around the world, women have always found ways to help one another. It’s sad and shameful that we have to do it in an Underground Railroad kind of way, when abortion should be viewed as basic healthcare.” She adds that, “while the Supreme Court might not think it an undue burden to have to travel and stay overnight with strangers and reveal to other strangers her circumstances, any person who has had to go through it realizes what an undue burden is.”

Ann Farmer is a freelance writer in New York City.

For more information:

Also see Women’s eNews, June 26, 2003:
“Volunteer Drivers Hold Keys to Abortion Access”:

New York Abortion Access Fund:

Planned Parenthood of New York City–