Haven Volunteers: An Immediate Impact on Abortion Care

Haven Volunteers: An Immediate Impact on Abortion Care

By Mary Lou Greenberg

October 7, 2011

Karen Duda signed petitions, went to rallies and participated in traditional pro-choice activism. But, she said, “I wanted to do more.” She found the “more” in Haven in New York City six years ago, and now serves as its coordinator. It is, says Duda, “a way to have an immediate impact on women’s lives.”

The Haven Coalition is a group of volunteers who provide free overnight accommodations in their homes for women who come to New York City for second trimester abortions that require going to the clinic on two consecutive days. Haven works in partnership with several clinics, including Choices Women’s Medical Center. Haven’s network makes it possible for many low-income women to get procedures they need up to 24-weeks — procedures that may not be available in their home states.

Haven was founded 10 years ago by a woman who worked as a counselor at a New York City abortion clinic. One day, she asked a patient who came in for a two-day procedure, “where are you staying” “In my car,” the woman answered. “I have no money for a hotel.” The counselor immediately called several of her friends and asked if they had a couch the woman could sleep on. She found a space for her — and Haven was born.

Now a nonprofit organization, the group has a Board of Directors and approximately 100 volunteers on its database. Twenty to 30 of them sign up on a monthly basis to house women. Volunteer hosts find out about Haven mostly through word-of-mouth, while women who need housing are generally referred by the clinics, said Duda in an interview. A cell phone is the base of operations: there is no office.

With Haven, Duda said, the women can stop worrying about the practicalities of their trip, which often can be overwhelming to those who aren’t familiar with New York City. Haven volunteers are asked to pick up their guests at the clinic after the first part of the procedure (dilation of the cervix with laminaria), take them to their home, provide dinner and a safe place to sleep, then take them back to the clinic in the morning for the abortion. Some women are accompanied by a friend or relative who also stays with the host. When a woman comes by herself, often the host will wait for her while she has the procedure, then assist her in getting transportation home.

“The hosts provide a comfortable environment, and the women appreciate being with people who aren’t judging them,” Duda said. Families and co-workers of the patients may not know about their pregnancy and abortion, so both privacy and support can be especially important.

Women have come from as far away as Florida and Canada, as well as nearer localities with more restrictive abortion laws.

“There’s a “leap in the commitment required in opening your home to a stranger who can be going through an intense emotional experience,” says Duda. It’s a jump into another comfort zone or maybe, “a discomfort zone” for a while, as Duda puts it. “You’re giving a little piece of yourself,” she says.

Outside of the Haven community, Duda believes that abortion needs more openness and discussion. When abortion is in the news, she notes, it’s never about women having a right to do what’s best for themselves; the fetus is almost always called a “baby.” “People just don’t talk about abortion that much,” she said. “What if everyone who’d had an abortion or who has a friend who had one, came out about it. Suppose fathers and mothers wore t-shirts, saying ‘I paid for my daughter’s abortion because she was too young to have a baby.'”

While the majority of the Haven hosts are women, some men and at least one gay male couple volunteer, as well as male-female couples. The diversity shows that “this is an issue that affects everyone,” says Duda. And in a societal context it goes further — it’s “a way that different oppressed groups can support each other,” she says.
The Haven Coalition can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 917-371-2035.