dr george tiller, in memoriam: why we must continue the fight

I never met Dr Tiller personally, but I knew him by reputation, and the reproductive rights community I was a part of had worked with him on several desperate occasions. He was a man of great moral and physical courage. He put the right of women to control their own lives ahead of his own safety, and he paid the ultimate price.

In Dr Tiller's honour, I am re-posting what I wrote for this year's Blog For Choice. (I'm omitting a few paragraphs that are not relevant here.)

It's a reminder for all of us: never stop fighting. Never stop. The struggle for reproductive rights is the struggle for freedom and equality. Dr Tiller lost his life in this struggle. We can honour him by continuing his work.

* * * *

In 2002, in New York City, I joined a network of activists and volunteers called The Haven Coalition. I worked with Haven in some capacity until a few months before we moved to Canada.

My work with The Haven Coalition was by far the most challenging, exciting, exhausting, and rewarding activism I have ever done. For me it was the culmination of 25 years in the pro-choice movement.

What did The Haven Coalition do? We helped women who were forced to travel to New York City for second trimester abortions. [It still does.]

. . . .

I often refer to The Haven Coalition on this blog, but I thought I would use Blog For Choice Day - the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision in the US - as an opportunity to write about it at length. And so, a Haven FAQ.

When I talk to pro-choice friends about Haven, they are often surprised that women needed to come to New York City for a procedure.

Why is Haven needed?

In US states, myriad obstacles stand between a woman who needs to terminate a pregnancy and her ability to do so. None are more pervasive and more dire than availability and income.

  • In 2000, 87% of US counties had no abortion provider. Thirty-four percent of women aged 15-44 live in those counties. Eighty-six of the US's 276 metropolitan areas had no provider.

  • In some states, a first-trimester abortion can cost more than a family of four receives in public assistance in a month.

  • Twenty-six states fund abortion in cases of threat to life, rape, or incest only. All must be proven in court.

  • Three US states prohibit the use of any state funds for abortion whatsoever. They have refused to comply with a federal law requiring states to provide Medicaid funding for abortion in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest.

  • Four states will fund abortion where there is threat to a woman's life or health, rape, incest, and some other reasons, such as verifiable abuse or mental health issues. All require several court appearances.

  • Four states prohibit private insurers from covering abortion.

    For a longer list of obstacles, and sources, see my post here.

    For a woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy, the further the pregnancy advances, the more complicated - and expensive - the procedure. If a woman of very limited means is trying to scrape together the $500 she needs for a first-trimester abortion, by the time she has $500, the procedure might cost $800. If she can manage to get her hands on that princely sum, the procedure now costs $2,500 and requires an overnight stay. This is known in the movement as "chasing the funds".

    Anti-abortion terrorism and intimidation have blown a gaping hole in medical education and experience. In many states, there are simply no abortion providers experienced in second-trimester abortions. In the few states where some doctors perform the procedure, the fee might be $4,000. But in New York City, the same procedure will cost between $1,500 and $2,500. Even throwing in the cost of a bus ticket, that's a substantial difference.

    But how is the woman going to manage in New York City? Where is she going to stay? That's where we came in.

    What does Haven actually do?

    I haven't been active in Haven in more than three years, so protocol may have changed substantially. But when I was there, this is the basic outline of what we did.

    The Haven coordinator gets a phone call from the clinic with some basic information about the patient. Is she alone or with a partner or friend? How old is she? Can she stay at a home with a dog or cat?

    Then the Haven coordinator on duty - the person who "has the phone" that week, as we would say - consults her calendar of hosts, and her list of emergency hosts, and she makes phone calls. (I'll skip all the fun stuff that made us tear our hair out.)

    Usually the clinic social worker was also calling a different, related group that raised money for the procedure itself.

    When the Haven coordinator finds a host, the host goes to the clinic and picks up the patient. Sometimes the host can't do this until later, so a different Haven volunteer goes to the clinic, and brings the woman to a coffee shop, where they'll hang out and wait together, or perhaps the second volunteer delivers the patient to the host's apartment. The idea is that the patient - pregnant, and in the middle of a medical procedure - isn't alone, and certainly doesn't have to negotiate New York City public transportation on her own.

    The host feeds the patient dinner, and puts her up for the night. In the morning, the host brings the patient back to the clinic to finish her procedure.

    Some nights we had no patients. Some nights we had 3 or 4 patients, doubled up in a host's home, or spread out all over the city.

    Who are our patients?

    Low-income women. They came from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Maine, and many other states. They came by bus, over 10- and 20-hour rides. They usually already had children.

    Our youngest patient was 11 years old. She was impregnated by her father. She didn't even know she was pregnant until an aunt noticed her belly.

    One woman I hosted told me she had been raped. I have to assume there were many others in the same situation.

    Many patients simply had all the children they could possibly afford and manage.

    But you know what? It wasn't my business.

    Birth control fails, women become pregnant, and a blob of cells is not as important as a living woman's life and the life of her family. Period. For various reasons, in women's difficult lives, unwanted pregnancies can advance longer than the woman wants them to. But that's no reason to force a woman to bear a child, or to bring an unwanted child into the world.

    I can think of few things more horrific than being forced to bear a child against my will. It was these women's Constitutional right - and, much more importantly, their human right - to control their bodies. I was there to help them to do that, not to pry into their lives and judge how they ended up in this desperate place.

    People who oppose abortion love to tell stories about how they, or their moms, or someone else they know, had a baby under difficult circumstances. Such stories abound. But they don't negate another woman's right to not have a child. First of all, most of these women already had children under difficult circumstances. And second of all, so what?? What does anyone else's story have to do with this woman, who wants and needs to terminate this pregnancy? You might do differently, but you ain't her.

    Remember my post, thoughts on privilege? This is where we have to think about privilege.

    Why is Haven necessary?

    Before Haven existed, pregnant women in the middle of a termination procedure had spent the night in the bus terminal or McDonald's. End of discussion.

    * * * *

    Haven was founded by Catherine Megill, a Canadian, who has since returned to Montreal, where she is studying at McGill University and (last I heard) plans to become an abortion provider. She worked at a clinic in New York City, and when a patient had no place to spend the night, Cat invited the patient to her home. That's how Haven was born.

    Cat passed the torch to Shauna Shames, and Shauna ran Haven single-handedly - one woman, a cell phone and a rag-tag group of volunteers. I found Haven in 2002 through this story in the Village Voice. So did a lot of other people, and Haven's hosting roster expanded from 8 to 15.

    I hosted a few times, and sometimes picked women up at the bus station (after they had spent the night on a bus), took them out for breakfast and brought them to the clinic. After a few experiences like that, I realized I wanted to help coordinate the growing volunteer network.

    The organization was now too large and successful for one person to run, especially one person who had a full-time job and a life to live. Shauna passed the phone to a coordinating team, which included me.

    When I left Haven leadership, we had 30 hosts. At that time, Haven had served a total of 378 women for 474 nights. I notice according to the little Haven website, the organization has now hosted 700 women for more than 800 nights. It's also now an official nonprofit organization - a move I opposed during my tenure, and I hope it's worked out well for them. I will send this post to some current Haven people, and maybe they'll come by to tell us how they're doing now.

    While writing this post, I looked through some of my old Haven files. Here are excerpts from two "case histories" I collected.

    Helping "S", from Massachusetts and on crutches, was a huge team effort involving a small army of transportation, coffee-shop, and hosting help. S and I were in a cab stuck in traffic, so I got to hear a piece of her story.
    Being pregnant and not wanting to be was the most sickening, horrible feeling in the world. I thought I was only 3-4 weeks along, I would take that pill. When they told me I was 19 weeks – too far along for an abortion in my state – I almost threw up from fear. I felt like I had been told I had an incurable disease, like I was dying. And then, when I heard about Haven and found out I could come to New York City, it's like I had been told a cure has been discovered.

    The town where I go to school is very wealthy, but one town over, it is dirt poor. You go to the mall there and see 16-year-old girls pushing baby carriages. Girls with no future. Girls with these dull looks on their faces, as if their lives have already hit a dead end, and they're only teenagers. And what about the baby? Being unwanted every day while it's in the womb, being hated, being despised – it's got to affect the child when it's born. How horrible to be brought into the world unwanted and unloved!

    I didn't tell my ex-boyfriend. I knew he'd want me to keep it. He couldn't make me keep it, but I thought he would tell my parents, to get back at me. My parents are Catholic and very conservative. I could never tell them.

    The clinic did the procedure at a huge discount. They basically took what I had as payment. When I have more money, I'm going to make a donation to them. I actually have private health insurance, but I can't use it, since my parents might find out that way.

    But more than the money, everyone at the clinic was so nice to me. Everyone from Haven was so generous and kind. And people were so trusting! [Host] left me alone in her apartment! They say if you want to find a crazy person, come to New York City. But here you all are, doing this amazing work. It shows you what stereotypes are worth.

    "D", in her early 40s, was originally from Guatemala. She has been living in Rhode Island for several years with her two sons, then 8 and 12, and with her elderly mother. She does not have a green card or any legal status in the US. She uses a friend's name and ID to work and support her family of four. D's host told us this.
    D had been with the same boyfriend for three years. When she told him she was pregnant, he left her. She was too far along for an abortion in Rhode Island.

    D struggled long and hard with the decision, especially because her mother is very religious and doesn't believe in abortion. Finally she decided it was the right thing to do for herself and her family.

    D came to the clinic we usually work with, where it was discovered that she had a medical condition making the procedure too risky for them. They referred D to [a hospital clinic that Haven occasionally works with], where they take the riskier cases.

    D traveled from Providence to [the first clinic] to [the hospital] herself, getting very lost, frustrated, and scared. Then she spent all day at the hospital getting run around. No one knew what procedure she was supposed to have, who was paying for it, or anything else.

    Finally [a Haven host] brought her home for a good meal and a night's sleep. They returned to the hospital together the next day. She had her procedure, then spent the night at a different host's home.

    Throughout both days she kept worrying about and calling her sons and her elderly mother to make sure they were okay. She told her mother she was visiting a sick friend in NYC.

    D needed a doctor's note for work, but it couldn't use the word abortion and couldn't use her real name! [The Haven host] helped D find a doctor willing to do this. Then the host took D back to the bus station, insisting she call from Providence to let me know she made it all right.

    For more examples, click here, and go to "stories".

    * * * *

    Although my current activism seems so different from this past experience, the War Resisters Support Campaign and the Haven Coalition have more in common than you may think.

    One link is right there in the name: haven. The Haven Coalition offered refuge - a safe port in a storm. Exactly what I want Canada to be for war resisters.

    The other common thread is personal autonomy, or you can call it bodily integrity. No one should be forced to bear a child against her wishes. No one should be forced to kill or to knowingly put themselves in grave danger of being killed, disabled, or traumatized.

    Every person should be free to live life as she or he sees fit. Period.
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