This Pro-Choice Organization Helps Midwesterners Travel To Chicago For Abortions

By Mae Rice in News on Dec 27, 2016 7:44PM

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1977: Women taking part in a demonstration demand safe legal abortions for all women. (Photo by Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images)

Last year, more than 3,000 people traveled across state lines to get abortions in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health—and many of them came to Chicago, where the bulk of Illinois abortions take place. Midwest Access Coalition (MAC), a Chicago-based pro-choice non-profit, aims to make these visits cheaper for out-of-towners in tough financial straits.

MAC's clients typically come to Chicago to escape restrictive abortion regulations in their hometowns, often for second-term abortions. Many clients come from Indiana, according to MAC founder Leah Greenblum. (No surprise—remember when a woman got 20 years in prison for "feticide," a.k.a. having a miscarriage, there?) Other MAC clients come from Wisconsin and Michigan; still others come from states as far-flung as Mississippi and Alaska, according to Greenblum.

They come to Chicago, specifically, because it's a sanctuary city in more ways than one. It not only has top-tier healthcare provides; it's also subject to Illinois' unusually pro-choice abortion regulations: no required waiting period or forced ultrasounds, no fetal-burial law (thank god), and no required parental consent (though parental notification is required, unless minors obtain a waiver).

Chicago could become an even more important destination for people seeking abortions once Trump takes office, and pro-life Indiana governor Mike Pence becomes vice president—especially if Roe vs. Wade gets overturned. Even in the past year, Illinois' neighbors have cracked down on abortion: Ohio recently banned abortion after 20 weeks, except in special cases; Indiana, as of this past March, has a fetal-burial law.

MAC's has a plan for life under Trump, though: to "keep on with our bad selves," Greenblum told Chicagoist.

That means continuing the work MAC has been doing since 2014: using its funds to cover transportation, meals and medication for women struggling to afford a visit to Chicago for an abortion. MAC also connects these women with accommodations and rides from a network of Chicago volunteers, who are doing the rough equivalent of Airbnb and Uber for a cause.

So far this year, MAC has helped more than 60 women get abortions in Chicago with this model. It's not nearly 3,000—and MAC applauds the people who travel to Chicago for abortions on their own—but as Greenblum explains, “We just want to be filling in the gaps for those folks where this is the make or break for them.”

MAC volunteer Janeen Williams added, "Rich white women will always have access to abortion." MAC's goal is to improve abortion access for less privileged demographics—often people struggling financially and/or people of color.

MAC aims to help women whose access is more tenuous—some of whom have never left their hometowns. Greenblum says that MAC often helps clients map their routes, find their nearest train stations, and manage safety concerns. A lot of MAC clients are "afraid of crime," Greenblum said. "They’ve heard all these bad things about Chicago.”

Then, of course, MAC helps with housing. Clients often need to stay for a few nights in Chicago for their procedure. Second-term abortions, though outpatient, take 2 to 3 days—a day or two for dilation, followed by another day for extraction.

Williams, a 23-year-old biomedical engineer, has hosted two women at the Andersonville home she shares with her fiancé. She's on-call to take clients for a week or so every month, and has been since she took MAC's two-hour volunteer training a year and a half ago.

She said the experience has been rewarding, and very much in line with her personal politics. “I’m really involved in activism in general," she said. "I’m black, I’m female, I’m in a STEM career. [...] I’m used to advocating on behalf of other people, and particularly women of color." Abortion access, she said, sits at the intersection of a lot of causes she cares about.

She added that it's a privilege to be able to host. "I’m in the very very fortunate position," she said, of having a spare bedroom and a schedule flexible enough to accommodate guests.

There are occasional difficulties to hosting, though. One is giving support that feels substantial but not prescriptive. Williams and her fiancé have struggled with the former—one night, she was working late, and her fiancé was home alone with a guest who needed to talk. He called Williams and asked her to come home early. “He was like, ‘I’m not useful here,’” she said.

Williams did go home early—and MAC's volunteer training had prepared her to listen actively, without being "instructive about things like the patriarchy," as Greenblum put it. "it’s not our place to be educating our clients… we just want to be supportive.” They offer a short-term support line clients can call about issues hosts aren't sure how to handle, too.

Still, "sometimes those conversations [with guests] are so hard, to hear where people are in their lives," Williams said. "I mean, it’s even harder for them… but you have to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself... and be very into self-care."

Another, more structural struggle MAC faces is diversifying their volunteer base. MAC already has some volunteers of color, including Williams, but Greenblum noted that a lot of people with the time and resources to volunteer are "middle-class white folks." This means many hosts are well-off and white, and many clients are not. MAC is working on ways to make their volunteer opportunities more inclusive—and, quite simply, on ways to grow.

"[W]e are committed to non-class-based volunteerism and work with our volunteers to make their service possible, even when they are without expendable income," Greenblum said in an email. "We make sure our costs are not passed onto our volunteers."

Just as they try to minimize the barriers to getting abortion, they're trying to minimize the barriers to joining the pro-choice movement. Now more than ever, this makes perfect sense. Under Trump, the movement will need everyone it can get.

Learn more about volunteering with Midwest Access Coalition here.