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The Truth About Abortion Referral


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If you were pregnant, alone, worried, and broke you might have the experience I did, when I answered an ad for "professional and safe abortions under $100 with most health plans."

After a longish hesitation, the woman at "Ethical Abortions" accepted my collect call. I explained that I had seen their ad in the Illini and needed an abortion. Five minutes later, everything could have been arranged—a trip to a New York clinic and back the same day, a simple clinical procedure called the "vacuum aspirator method," two hours of rest and lots of forms to fill out, for a total cost of $200.00 plus the plane fare.

Everything was very business-like. Women who suffered through illegal abortions in the past (remember Sherrie Finkbine?) would be amazed at how easy it is now. But I was wondering why the ad said $100 and she said $200, and why she hadn't mentioned health insurance. I said I'd check on plane flights to New York and call her back.

Two days later, I was a little more upset. I was having trouble raising the money, and I wondered if my health insurance might possibly cover part of the cost? Without a moment's hesitation I was assured that it wouldn't, that none of them did.

But I had clipped the advertisement out of the paper, and it said "most health plans," so I persisted. I had Blue Cross/Blue Shield, I told her. "Well, Blue Cross might take care of some of it, but it would cost you a lot more—about $600 in a hospital."

Now I was really worried about getting the money. "How much did Judy quote you when you called before?" Two hundred dollars. "Well—shall I have her call you tonite to see what we can do?" Oh yes, I said thankfully.

As it happened, it was not Judy who returned my call but a man who said his name was Brian. "Is this your own phone?" he asked quickly. "Do your parents know?" When I told him I didn't live with my parents that that they didn't know, he said "What about your boyfriend?"

That's the problem, really. He promised to help me with the money, but now he's having second thoughts. He thinks I should have the baby.

You're going to keep the child? That's very expensive, you know, raising a child, and it takes a long time."

I know, but—

"Look. I can give you an abortion for $185 and there won't be any problems. You'll be in to New York and home again in a day."

That's still more than I've got

"Do you want to carry a child for nine months? Nine months, that's a long time, you know. And it's not fun. Did you every carry a child before?"


"Does your boyfriend want to get married?"

He's mentioned it, but I'm not sure I want to.

"You're right. That's not the way to start a marriage, when you're pregnant. That's why they made abortions legal in New York."

There are a lot of reasons I can think of for abortion law reform, but I'm sure it wasn't passed to allow Brian and other salespeople the chance to earn their living selling abortions, by phone, to women who aren't sure they want one. I had a powerful incentive for resisting his hard sell—namely, that I wasn't pregnant. My story was a fabrication. In the last two weeks, I've answered every abortion advertisement I could find, using my real name (after all, abortion's legal now, nothing to be ashamed of), giving the date of my last menstrual period as September 27, and inventing details as called for. I didn't actually go to New York to investigate, but I learned enough by telephone to know what not to do if I ever do need an abortion. NEVER rely on a newspaper ad to obtain an abortion. In Chicago, the best agency to contact is Planned Parenthood Abortion Referrals (726-5166).

But what if my story had been real? How strong would the temptation have been to say yes, and end the agony of decision? Most people can scrape together $303 ($185 for the abortion and $188 plane fare) from somewhere, in a real crisis. But would I have discovered that Planned Parenthood offers the same procedure for $130, $55 less? Would the abortion have been medically safe—would there even have been an abortion at all, after I wired my money?

Women who answer newspaper abortion ads are better off than those who arrive at the airport and trust a taxi driver. But not much. The history of abortion clinics in New York City caused the Village Voice last week to say that "doctors and clinic owners have been able to make abortion one of the biggest rip-offs of women's bodies ever known."

At first (and especially from a "liberated" point of view) it's hard to argue against abortion advertising. It's all legal and out front now, right? So why not advertise?

Eventually, abortions should become a standard procedure, covered by health insurance plans and with a standard cost (hopefully not inflated by unreasonable restrictions and requirements, of course). Until then, the competition between New York clinics will probably continue, and it does tend to drive the cost down. but advertising is objectionable because insufficient information is available to allow an individual woman to make an intelligent choice (there is no central bureau, and an abortion is not the sort of thing you shop around for), and because it catches the woman in an extremely vulnerable position psychologically.

Legislation can and should give women control over their own bodies, but a woman's emotions cannot be legislated. Undergoing an abortion is a traumatic experience, and no amount of political rhetoric can change that. Every woman suffers doubts beforehand, and afterwards, the feeling that one doctor I know calls the "what could have beens."

Women facing unwanted pregnancies need supportive, personal, disinterested advice. But some doctors refuse to discuss abortions or, more often, the subject has such sordid or sinful connotations for the woman that she is afraid to ask. Many women face this most difficult of decisions alone, unable to tell their parents or husbands or boyfriends. These are the women most likely to resort to newspaper ads.

What happens when a "customer" calls one of the numbers she sees advertised? First, she's giving a perfect stranger very personal information about herself with no guarantee how it will be used. One clinic called me back at 8:15 a.m., and another woman confided to the man who answered the phone and said I wasn't home that "Nancy's decided to get an abortion." both these calls would have ruined any chance of keeping my abortion secret from the people I lived with—what if they had been my parents or, say, a Catholic husband?

Secondly, clinics should ask only two personal questions, your age and when your last period was. But often they ask others ("Are you married?" or "Do you live alone?" or "When did you find out you were pregnant?") in an effort to "sound you out" and see how desperate your situation is.

Many of these salespeople (and they are mostly women) are extremely skilled at reassuring callers, and will slip a definite appointment into the conversation before you know what you're agreeing to. Despite my best intentions and several well-prepared selling lines, I actually made two appointments almost before I realized it. They're obviously going on the theory that once you've agreed to a time, even though you didn't mean to, the relief of having the decision out of your hands will make you keep it.

The prices that are quoted over the phone vary far more than they should, from $165 (still $30 more than Planned Parenthood) to $300 for a simple vacuum aspirator procedure. Most of them say $200 or $225. But these quoted prices aren't fixed, and it is literally possible to bargain. For example, when "Ethical Abortion Referral" from Philadelphia called me at 8:15 one morning, the woman said, "You were supposed to call me back, Nancy. What have you decided to do about your abortion, dear?"

Ummm … I'm going to work through Planned Parenthood here in Chicago.

Oh. How much are they charging?"

$140. (The price has since gone down at their clinic to $130).

"Well, that's not too bad. But you'd still have to go to New York City?"


"Could you hold the line just a minute … I've just been conferring with another counselor here, and he says we can let you go through for $130. The only reason we can do that is we get so many girls here, the hospital says if a girl can't afford it to let her go through."

She was quite eager to get me to cancel my Planned Parenthood appointment and make one with her, which doesn't make much sense (me being a charity case and all) unless she was on commission, or unless her job depended upon signing up a certain number of abortions a day. When another clinic called me back that afternoon, I tried the same line about Planned Parenthood with the same results. "Is that all they're charging now? Hmmm … I didn't how that Planned Parenthood charged so little. We can let you have it for that. I mean, we charge $210 but if Planned Parenthood costs only $140 we can too."

Fact: though many abortion clinics are classified as "non-profit corporations" none of them, not even Planned Parenthood's clinic, would be in business unless it was financially worth their while. (The definition of "non-profit" becomes a question here—if a doctor is being paid $100 dollars an hour to perform abortions, I might be tempted to say he was making a profit.) The vacuum aspirator is such a simple, quick procedure there is almost no way to make one clinic preferable to another (as long as they are both medically sound) except paint the walls a nicer color. For a prettier waiting room, you should pay $95 dollars more? That's what the price differentials amount to.

The abortion agencies to really watch out for are the ones which operate outside of New York City, usually in upstate New York. Clinics in the City must meet strict licensing requirements, and their advertising is regulated. But in Niagara Falls there's Mitchell Family Planning Inc., "a non profit organization." Actually, their phone number has been changed. For some reason they have moved to Michigan since their ad appeared in October, but they still arrange abortions. "How old are you, young lady?"

I'm twenty-two.

"Oh, well, seventeen is the legal age. You're plenty old enough to have an abortion." (Thanks a lot, mister.)

How much will it cost?


That's more than I expected. In fact, that's about 30% higher than the most expensive clinic I contacted in NYC, and nearly two and a half times what Planned Parenthood charges.)

"Well, it's in upper state New York where it's nicer. If you go to New York City it may cost less, but you'll have to stay there overnight and there's no guarantee that it's legal or clean." (I don't know what he meant by that, but he said it.)

Yeah … well, I'll think about it.

"You can think about it, young lady, but if you say eight weeks you're probably ten, they're usually about two weeks over,and you haven't much time. But it's your body and you're paying for it so make up your own mind."

I will, thanks.

What about the newspapers that accept abortion advertising, and the ad agencies that place them? In Chicago, these ads are pretty much limited to college newspapers, particularly the Maroon at the U. of Chicago and the Illini at Circle Campus. At the Illini I was told, "They pay for 'em, we run 'em." The paper is an independent corporation, so the University administration has never gotten involved. "We run them all on one page with the contraceptive ads, sort of as a joke. But they perform a service, I suppose, for readers who are interested." Some joke. Some service.

The Maroon printed a letter several weeks ago, complaining about these ads, and since then the paper has been running a "public service announcement" in their classifieds section warning readers, "DON'T panic and call for help from people you don't know … ." Other than that, nothing has been done about the ads because "they are affording us a fairly large amount of revenue upon which we are dependent."

One paper that used to accept the ads and doesn't any longer is the Daily Northwestern. "We ran both abortion and contraceptive ads last year, but we had a couple of complaints from girls who used them, so our policy this year is not to run any at all. They were never a substantial part of our revenue." Catholic schools, such as Loyola and De Paul, do not accept the ads for obvious reasons.

Of the two agencies handling college newspaper ads in Chicago, one refuses to handle abortion ads. CASS told me, "we don't take them. Last year we had taken one, and we got calls from one or two of the schools saying that some other abortion agencies had taken deposits and then not followed through. So I thought, it's not the most attractive type of ad and that gives me an excuse for not handling them.

Most of the adds you see are handled by NEAS, National Education Ad Service. NEAS does not investigate the clinics, but they accept only non-profit clinics licensed in New York City. "The City passed a new law last spring, requiring licenses and so on. It knocked the worst ones out of business. Before, we had many more accounts—now we've only got five or six, and they can be trusted."

NEAS does not handle abortion ads originating outside of New York City. Abortion referral services elsewhere almost all use NYC clinics, but they don't have to satisfy the stringent new regulations. They usually place ads directly with the college papers themselves. Apparently many of the questionable places I called were of this sort. It seems to me that at the very least college papers should refuse to accept ads that arrive independently, and run free ads as well as the good local services, such as Planned Parenthood, Choice, and Zero Population Growth. Every woman should know that she can get dependable, inexpensive, hassle-free abortions legally without subjecting herself to the anxiety and danger of answering a newspaper advertisement.

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