Is our own New York City.
New York has the highest abortion rate in the United States. One in ten abortions is performed here, and seventy percent of those are performed in New York City. But it’s not because New Yorkers are abortion-crazed heathens — it’s because New York has historically been, and continues to be, a haven of safe and accessible abortion.
Women come from all over the country to have abortions in New York. Here, low-income residents can pay for their procedures through state Medicaid funds. There are no parental consent laws, meaning that girls in this state don’t have to cross state lines or risk abuse to terminate a pregnancy. There are no waiting periods, so that when women decide to terminate a pregnancy, they can do it early — no repeat clinic visits, no paternalistic “go home and think about it” requirements.
And New Yorkers have made it this way.
New York becomes more pro-choice every year. After years of electoral free fall, the New York Right to Life Party failed to win enough votes in 2002 to stay on the ballot. The party doesn’t even have a Website anymore. The New York Right to Life Committee, which founded the national anti-abortion movement in 1967, hasn’t had a legislative victory in years. No pro-life candidate can win statewide office in New York. Ambitious Republicans climbing toward the governor’s mansion, like George Pataki, and now John Faso, hastily ditch their pro-life pasts. New York City’s mayor is one of the most pro-choice politicians in the country.
It’s worth noting that before Roe, New York passed the most permissive legal abortion law in the country — women who could afford it came in droves to safely and legally terminate their pregnancies here. This trend continues now with low-income women, whose home states employ various anti-choice policies limiting their access to the procedure.
This article also points out that abortion, in NY and in the US, is nothing new. A study from 1868 found that one in five pregnancies in New York City ended with abortion (so much for the argument that abortion is caused by sexual freedom and access to the birth control pill).
It was an NYU Law paper that first proposed that the right to abortion was included under the right to privacy. In New York City, specifically through the progressive Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park, a network of clergy and doctors worked together to provide women access with safe abortions — similar networks were happening across the country, like JANE in Chicago. When NARAL was formed, they focused on New York first, and were successful in passing the country’s first abortion-rights legislation.
The statistics from the time show that one of the benefits of legalization in New York was that New York women were having abortions earlier. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reported that no more than 10 percent of the city’s residents in 1972 had abortions after twelve weeks of pregnancy. For women traveling to New York City from non-border states, the rate of abortions after twelve weeks was 23 percent because of the time it took to find a provider and arrange travel and lodging in the city, especially difficult for young women who had barely ever left their own state.
The other obvious lesson from the seventies is that women with resources almost always have access to abortion. For those who couldn’t afford a trip to New York, coat hangers and knitting needles, the ghastly symbols of the early abortion-rights movement, remained a fact of life.
New Yorkers continue to have access to abortion, and even low-income residents here are able to terminate unwanted pregnancies early because of Medicaid funding. But as it’s always been for women in anti-choice states, the “right to choose” rings a little hollow:
The few existing studies on states that have passed abortion restrictions confirm the obvious: Women who want abortions leave the state to have them. Mandatory-delay laws, now on the books in 24 states, require a woman to wait usually 24 hours before getting an abortion. The versions that are the most effective in stopping abortions require women to make two trips to the provider, an obstacle for some who have to travel long distances, take days off work, or arrange day care. The most comprehensive study of these two-trip laws, a 1997 Journal of the American Medical Association paper on Mississippi’s experience, showed that three things happened in the state after the law went into effect. Total abortions went down by 12 percent. The percentage of late abortions (after twelve weeks) went up by 40 percent. And the percentage of Mississippians going out of state for abortions also went up by 40 percent. “For an economist, those are really strong behavioral responses to the law,” says Ted Joyce, the paper’s lead author.
Parental consent laws have similar effects:
“When Massachusetts imposed a consent statute, abortion rates fell a lot, 43 percent among minors,” says Joyce. “Yet if you measured abortion rates by state of residence, there was no change. Kids just poured across the border.”
Enter The New Underground Abortion Railroad. I’ve written about my experience volunteering with the Haven Coalition numerous times before, because the work that they do is so important. This article is interesting in that it explores the class differences and discomforts between the host and the patient — the women who use Haven are mostly black and Latina and always poor, while the hosts tend to be white, college-educated and middle-income. The majority of these women come to New York for second-trimester procedures because they lacked any other choice. Medicaid wouldn’t cover their procedures. They’re working at minimum-wage jobs, or not working at all — of the women I’ve met through Haven, one was a 14-year-old girl who obviously didn’t have an independent income (her incredibly supportive mother who came with her had five other children, one who herself has a child and just started college); one came from Florida, and worked two minimum wage jobs; another came from Pennsylvania and worked full-time as a drug store clerk while attending community college. It takes months for them to save up for an abortion, and they often have other children to take care of. It’s also difficult for them to take time off work, find childcare, and get to New York for the procedure.
For these women, the right to a legal abortion doesn’t mean a whole lot. Read both articles, but especially the first one. It’s eye-opening.
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