abortion rights

What New Yorkers Don’t Know About Roe

Photo: CJ Gardella

From the outside, it looked like another quirky pop-up — the kind of place where curious passersby might score a T-shirt or a shot of kiwi-carrot-whatever juice. But No Choice Travel (tagline “First-class travel for second-class citizens”), which occupied a small storefront in Lower Manhattan earlier this month, had a much more urgent message for those who wandered through its door: New York is not as progressive as you’d think on abortion, and the upcoming election is a chance to change that.

The mock travel agency, created by patient-advocates Erika Christensen and Garin Marschall, featured “trips” to Colorado, New Mexico, and Maryland — three states a woman in New York might be forced to travel to in order to terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks. It’s a scenario the Brooklyn-based couple knows personally (and recounted earlier this year for the Cut’s How I Got This Baby” series): In 2016, when doctors discovered that Christensen’s pregnancy was nonviable at 30 weeks, she and Marschall were shocked to learn that she couldn’t receive care in New York. Instead, due to a pre–Roe v. Wade provision in the state penal code — one that criminalizes abortion after 24 weeks’ gestation, without exception for when a woman’s health is at risk or a severe fetal abnormality is detected — they were told their best option would be to travel to Colorado. This meant booking plane tickets, a rental car, and a hotel room; paying $10,000 out of pocket for medical costs; and going through the emotional and physical burden of traveling long distance, all for a procedure that should be protected under Roe — which requires states to allow abortions when a woman’s health is in danger or in cases of fetal nonviability.

The only way to end the ban is with new legislation. Enter the Reproductive Health Act (RHA), which would write the protections of Roe into state law — a crucial step toward guarding abortion rights for New York women, regardless of what happens at the federal level. The bill would also expand access by explicitly allowing certified medical professionals (including nurse practitioners and physician assistants) to provide abortions. The RHA passed the state assembly earlier this year, but got held up in the state senate when Republican leaders refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Through their advocacy project Abort Mission and its RHAvote campaign, Christensen and Marschall are hoping to call attention to the RHA in time for the election. “In two short weeks, voters have a real opportunity to consider this issue when they’re making their decisions, with the goal of getting a pro-choice majority in the New York State Senate,” says Christensen. “It’s the only way we can fix this — and we don’t get another shot for two years.”

The Cut spoke with Christensen and Marschall about their lives as activists, what’s at stake in November, and why a pop-up might be a more effective tool for change than another meeting with a legislator’s intern.

How did you decide to dedicate yourselves to this issue full-time?

EC: I think the amount of people who reached out to us from the [June 2016 Jezebel] interview with their situations, all of a sudden it very quickly pivoted from being about this thing that happened to us to, oh, this is a thing that is happening and we have an interesting insight into what that’s like. And we think that we could potentially be part of the solution.

Also, what happened in that six months is there was a presidential debate in October where [Donald Trump] called me a murderer on national television. [Editor’s note: In the third presidential debate, Trump inaccurately stated, “You can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month, on the final day…” effectively describing a C-section, not an abortion.] I will never forget it. If anything motivated me to work toward changing the narrative of this issue, it was that moment. We were in bed. I was pregnant again. We were watching TV, and I couldn’t believe it. It was like a parallel universe had opened up and it felt like he was talking to me and all of the sudden my phone started blowing up with, just from the few friends and family that knew, just being like “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. Are you watching this? This is so appalling.” And it was honestly, yes, appalling, but also very motivating. I was like Arya Stark after that.

GM: Yeah, so I think all of these things were sort of bubbling and then Katharine Bodde from the New York Civil Liberties Union reached out … to see if [Erika] would lend her story to efforts to fix the law in New York.

You originally shared your story anonymously. What made you attach your names and faces?

EC: [Bodde] asked if I wanted to be on a panel. And it was at that point, because there was some media in the room, that somebody just said my full name. It’s fine; this is how things work out sometimes. I hadn’t quite thought that I would go public, but someone just said my name as they were livestreaming and I looked at Garin and I was like, “Guess my name’s on this now.” And it was actually okay, because I had started to feel weird about being anonymous, because it implied that I was maybe ashamed in some way. There was something right about being gently pushed out of the closet a little bit.

The No Choice Travel pop-up. Photo: CJ Gardella

How did you come up with the idea for No Choice Travel?

GM: While there are a lot of really great storytelling projects out there around abortion, a lot of people are simply never going to go to that website or go to that event or whatever it is. And so, coming from our background in theater and my background in experience marketing, we were trying to find ways to get people that may not normally self-select to be in a situation where they would hear these stories.

EC: In this case, it was opening the door and inviting anyone off the street to come in and, whether they meant to or not, maybe get an abortion story or two and start to change their worldview a little bit … One of the simple points about New York State abortion law that we’re trying to educate people about is that people are getting on planes for health care. That is something most New Yorkers probably don’t know, so this was a logical framework to educate people specifically about that.

As part of the pop-up, you included travel “reviews,” which were really interviews with New Yorkers who’d taken that specific trip to get an abortion, sharing their experiences. How did you find those women?

EC: I started to gather stories a little over a year ago, when we started going to Albany and telling our story [to lawmakers]. A reaction that we would often get was, Oh, that’s so sad for you, but that’s not really a thing that affects lots of people, that’s just you. So we said, Okay, I guess we need to bring more. I started to get the stories of other New York women and compiled them into a letter, just to show them it’s not just me, it’s actually women all over the state.

Those are relationships I had already cultivated and stories I had easy access to, because we’re in the same support network of people who ended wanted pregnancies. But I knew that we did not have a project if it only quoted stories like ours, so I reached out to this incredible researcher named Katrina Kimport — she works out of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health. I wrote to her with this conundrum that I had to include the stories of other people who have had abortions for non-medical diagnoses. And she totally understood it and provided other stories to round out what we were presenting.

Why was it important to you to include a range of experiences, and not just later abortion stories that were the result of wanted pregnancies? Were you at all worried that the anti-abortion community would take those stories and use them as ammo?

EC: I was much more worried about only including stories like ours and leaving out other women. That was, by far, my biggest concern. I think we allow the antis to really run the table on this particular debate. I very rarely hear them challenged with, you know, when you ask me to put limits on when someone can seek an abortion, you’re asking me to give you a point at which I’m okay for a woman to carry a pregnancy against her will.

GM: Katrina [co-authored] a paper, part of a bigger Turnaway Study, where she focused on later abortions not for medical reasons, threats to the health, anomalies — but for other reasons. And usually it’s for a multitude of reasons. Maybe they were pushed a little late because they had trouble making the decision, maybe there was some conflict with their partner, maybe they couldn’t get the money together, some women didn’t know they were pregnant. And you know, lots of people find all of that stuff hard to believe or they don’t trust the women in these situations or they pretend that the women are being irresponsible. Like how could you not know you were pregnant? And it’s like, well—

EC: For lots of reasons! People have irregular periods. For my last pregnancy, I didn’t know I was pregnant until 15 weeks. How is that? Well, because I’d been pregnant for over a year and I just didn’t even know what a healthy body looked like anymore. There are all kinds of reasons why someone might not know that they are pregnant. As Garin said, sometimes it’s compounded. Sometimes it’s more than one thing.

GM: These anti [abortion] talking points sound reasonable enough in the abstract sense, but once you start to focus on that person’s particular story and their circumstances, how they got to the point where they made that decision, it’s impossible to say you would do something different because (a) you’re not them, and (b) you’re not in those circumstances. I think that’s really what the core of our work gets to. We’re trying to bring these people’s lives and circumstances back to the debate, and I think then it makes it very difficult to say that you would limit their rights.

A poster from the No Choice Travel pop-up. Photo: CJ Gardella

What were some of the most memorable reactions from people who walked through the door?

EC: My favorite was the 20-something drunk dude who wandered over at the end of the night. We were still working on the space. Garin and I were finishing up painting at like two in the morning and he was looking in the window and he’s like, “What is this?” And we were tired and we were just like, “A pop-up.” He was like, “What kind?” We were like, “Travel.” He was like, “Oh, but it goes to Bethesda? What is this?” He was really pushing us. Finally, we told him what it was, and he was like, “Wait, what’s the law?” We explained it, and he was like, “That’s fucked-up! We should fix it!” Once he was given the information, he got it. That’s really what we were looking for.

Did you have any negative encounters?

EC: I did have one anti come over. She wouldn’t walk in the door, but she talked to me outside for 20 minutes and it was important to her to say her piece and I think we had an interesting discussion. We were down the street from a Catholic church so I guess I should be surprised we didn’t have more.

What was that conversation like? Did you tell her your personal story?

EC: She let me tell her our story, and I told her that I was able to have a healthy baby and that, without the safe, legal abortion that I had at the time I had it, I would not have this particular baby. Her answer was, “How do you know you didn’t murder a baby just like your baby?” After I had already told her there was just no hope. But I appreciated that she was willing to engage with me and maybe she heard a story she ordinarily wouldn’t have heard and maybe on some level she’ll think about it. We also had women come in and tell us their abortion stories. That’s something I hadn’t expected.

I’d imagine a lot of people didn’t know what they were walking into. What was it like to see that light bulb go off after visitors walked in?

EC: What we didn’t include in the video, because we only had 60 seconds, were the people who came in and said, “Wait. Is this an abortion thing?” and then left. There were definitely those people. And of course, we expected that too. Middle-aged white dudes would come in and just not want to give it any time. They would be like, “What is it?” And we’d say, “Take a look around. I don’t want to ruin the surprise for you. Let me know if you have questions.” They’d say, “You’re not going to tell me what it is? Fine,” and they would just leave in a huff, and we were like, “Okay. Cool.” Then there were people who once they realized what it was, were really inspired by it and thought, “Oh, God. This is crazy that this is happening in our state.” The most liberal or engaged, they would come in and say, “Oh, I’m pro-choice, you don’t need to give me the spiel, I already know.” And I’d say, “Oh, then you’re aware that in your state, abortion is in the criminal code?” And they’d go, “What?” Those were probably the most rewarding because those were the people we’re really after — the ones bitching about Trump and angry about the state of national politics. Those are our people. They have a fight right here at home that they could make a tangible real difference pretty quickly.

What do New Yorkers need to understand about the RHA going into the election?

GM: Roe effectively limits the restriction that states can place on abortions. What that means is that if Roe were repealed, states can place whatever restrictions they want on abortions … There are two ways to do something about it. One of them is to make sure Roe is not overturned, and I’m not sure what we can do about that right now with Kavanaugh on the Court. It sort of depends on the cases coming up. The other thing people can do is look at their state laws, because if every state in the country has strong, reasonable abortion laws, we wouldn’t need Roe. With Roe being threatened, what that means is that state laws will be even more important. That’s why we’re focusing on New York; because it affected us, because—

EC: It’s our home. We love New York.

GM: It’s a big opportunity. New York is a very important state in the country and passing this bill, the Reproductive Health Act, and fixing the state law, I think would be a bit of a beacon and maybe an inspirational event with regard to passing stronger laws across the country.

EC: On a more practical level, as state laws get more restricted, there is going to be a run on resources — meaning abortion funds or organizations that help provide travel for people [seeking an abortion]. There’s a finite amount of those resources. They’re private resources. And New Yorkers should not be a drain on them, not when we have the numbers to fix the law.

Opponents of RHA have argued that it “goes too far” in expanding abortion rights, and some lawmakers are  taking issue with allowing medical professionals other than physicians to provide abortions.

GM: It’s important to note that 16 states allow APCs (advanced practice clinicians, such as nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives, or physician assistants) to provide early abortions. [Editor’s note: Half of those states allow APCs to provide medication abortions only.]

EC: And so what we hear from the other side is, “Dentists will be performing abortions!” and it’s like, what happens in the other states where they allow it? Wider access to care, people get abortions earlier when they need them.

GM: A lot of stuff we’re hearing people say when they talk against the bill is coming from very specific sources. We’ve seen the opposition talking points to the bill that are provided by the New York Catholic Conference and groups like that in the state. And a lot of them are certainly focused on raising the issue of it being unsafe.

EC: ACOG supports the bill, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. I would rather let their view mean more than the Catholics’. I’m pretty sure hundreds of cardinals do not have medical degrees, last time I checked.

When we talk about abortion, we are talking about a portion of the population that is able to get pregnant — people in their teens, 20s, 30s, and 40s. A lot of our legislators are older, and male. Is it striking to meet with them to discuss an issue they’re very unlikely to be grappling with?

GM: When you walk into these offices a lot of the time, there is a bit of infantalization with women, with activists, with people that care enough to even be there. It’s almost as if there’s this disdain before you even get in the room … You don’t often meet with the senators themselves. You’ll meet with staff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s how the government works. But a lot of times it feels like you got the intern or the person who drew the short straw. They’re sitting there with a legal pad and you’re telling them the worst thing that ever happened to you, and they’re supposed to somehow convey that passionately to the senator on your behalf. It seems unlikely to work.

EC: Yes, yes. I mean the fact that the head of the health committee [State Senator Kemp Hannon] is a 70-something-year-old white man makes my head explode … It’s frustrating as a patient to have to continually tell my story to people and ask them to understand and empathize with me when I’m not even sure they see me as a complete human being.

This interview has been edited for length.

What New Yorkers Don’t Know About Roe