‘No Choice’: Pop-Up Travel Agency Brings Attention to Antiquated New York Abortion Law

Reproductive rights advocates continue the pushback against a state law banning abortion care after 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

[Photo: A streetview of the No Choice Travel Agency Pop Up]
The immersive pop-up was located at 230A Mulberry St in Manhattan for four days last week. Rewire.News

View photos of the No Choice Travel Agency here.

The No Choice Travel Agency that popped up in lower Manhattan over the weekend had all the trappings of a typical trip bureau, with one major caveat: Travelers were limited to three destinations.

OK, well, there were a few more stipulations: The travel would be state-mandated; the costs—emotional and financial—would be hefty; and, the traveler—you—would be more than 24 weeks pregnant, possibly carrying an unviable fetus.

This is the scenario a small but growing and more vocal group of pregnant people find themselves in each year due to New York state’s antiquated, unconstitutional abortion law, which is regulated in the criminal code and restricts abortion care after 24 weeks with no exceptions. Those who find themselves in need of abortion services at or after that period can travel to one of the few states offering later abortion care—in this case Colorado, Maryland, or New Mexico. That’s if they have the financial means to do so. Otherwise, they’re forced to carry their pregnancy to term.

Most abortions occur in the first trimester. Only 1.3 percent of all abortions nationwide occur after 21 weeks, and there are myriad reasons for later abortions, as the pop-up travel agency showed. It was a wanted pregnancy in some cases, or the pregnant person wasn’t in a position to make an appointment before then in other cases. But as the pop-up demonstrated, all travelers got the same “deal” no matter their circumstance.

“A lot of people have come in and asked, ‘Well, how does Kavanaugh affect this issue and in New York?’” said Erika Christensen of Abort Mission, an advocacy project she created with her husband, Garin Marschall, aimed at disrupting traditional storytelling. “You know, our state law does not comply with Roe v. Wade right now. We have this hard cutoff at 24 weeks, with no exceptions.”

Under Roe v. Wade, abortions are permitted after viability of the fetus (approximately 24 weeks) if the pregnant person’s health is threatened. “So, [New York’s law] existed whether or not Kavanaugh was confirmed. But, with Kavanaugh now on the Court, we can be sure it’s not if Roe is overturned, but when.”

“So this issue is pressing, it is urgent, and we can’t just keep kicking this down the road. It’s past time” to overturn the law on the books.

Located on a bustling street in lower Manhattan, at the epicenter of designer shops, the No Choice Travel Agency resembled a high-end travel agency, with brochures and placards offering packages that meet no one’s budget. Once you passed a welcoming seating area, you start to notice something about this brightly colored storefront is a bit different. There are large posters breaking down the three “packages.” “Peak access” includes a last-minute flight to Denver, four nights in a mid-level hotel, a rental car trip to Boulder, and critical health care. The “high and dry” package goes to Albuquerque, New Mexico, but otherwise the deal is the same. The third option is a “highway robbery” package, which includes a grueling road trip down I-95, two motion sickness wristbands, four nights in an overpriced hotel, and critical health care in Bethesda, Maryland. Each package provides customer reviews, except the reviews are stories from New York women who sought an abortion outside their home state.

“In a way this is like a big fancy project to feature ten stories,” Christensen said. “That’s really the central mission that we had: to introduce people to the patients who are actually accessing later abortion care for a variety of reasons, many of which aren’t that different from the reasons people need abortions earlier in pregnancy.”

Christensen told Rewire.News on Sunday, the fourth and last day of the pop-up, that a mix of people had stopped by to see the project, some completely unaware of its purpose. “I think I’m most surprised and maybe, dare I say, slightly encouraged by the young men … in their 20s who come in expecting a travel pop up. They very quickly are like, ‘Whaaat?’ We explain it’s a reproductive rights advocacy project, and they start to read. They ask about the law, and then they’re like, ‘This is fucked up.’”

On the other hand, people who are against abortion have also stopped by. One woman in her 60s refused to come inside the store, but she did have a 20-minute conversation with Christensen, who personally has experience leaving the state for later abortion care. “It’s important for us to present the patient perspective,” Christensen told Rewire.News. “First and foremost, so people feel like they can actually have a real, practical understanding of why people need this care and why it is so critical that we provide it, and that we insist on everyone getting the care they need with no patient left behind.”

Christensen said it’s unlikely they will change the minds of those who oppose abortion rights. But if those who disagree with later abortion care “come over to these stories and read one or two lines, I believe then we’ve done our job. Then at least maybe there will be a voice in the back of their head that will not forget the patient who already has six kids and literally believes a seventh would kill her. Or the person who found out at 28 weeks that the fetus they were carrying had no brain. These are stories that, I would guess, a lot of people who think they don’t agree with us have never heard. Maybe they won’t take the time to fully understand the law. And maybe they won’t even vote on our side. But they will somewhere on some level take in these stories for the first time, and we think that’s important.”

For those more willing to engage in the dizzying experience, at the back of the pop-up was a booth inviting visitors to take action by contacting their state senator; reaching out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D); telling everyone they know about the law to help fight stigma; donating to the Brigid Alliance, which helps abortion patients cover travel costs; and voting on November 6. The booth included a tablet where visitors could look up whether their state senator is a champ or chump on reproductive rights at ChoiceChamps.com.

“We have one chance to fix this issue and it happens on November 6,” Christensen said, referring to the midterm elections. The Reproductive Health Act (RHA) is one legislative fix to the antiquated abortion law, but it’s failed to gain support in the New York legislature, “because without a pro-choice majority in the state senate, we can’t even get the Reproductive Health Act to the floor for a vote.”

Christensen and Marschall, who had to travel to Colorado to end a nonviable pregnancy at 32 weeks, have advocated for the passage of the RHA through the RHAvote campaign.

“People often don’t even know who their state senator is, never mind that they have so much power and effect on our everyday lives. So it’s kind of a two-pronged education initiative here at the travel agency that we’re trying to do. Present the problem—show how it affects real people, make the connection to law—and then, most importantly, how we fix it,” said Christensen.

That fix includes taking a hard look at self-described pro-choice state senators who are not showing up for their constituents. “The best example of that that I can think of is New York’s Susan Collins, Elaine Phillips, out on Long Island. She is a pro-choice Republican who voted against the RHA [when Democrats tried to attach it to other bills] and when the CCCA [Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act] came up she went for a convenient bathroom break,” Christensen said. “She can wear her pink scarf all she wants, but when she had the chance, she deserted the women of New York state.”

The RHA passed in the New York Assembly this year, but failed in the state senate, where a group of conservative Democrats caucus with Republicans.

Mobilizing registered Democrats is a critical strategy, considering registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in her district, but they didn’t show up in 2016, according to Christensen. “A lot of it is disenfranchisement. These are communities of color, where [some legislators] make it as hard as possible to vote.“ Christensen is working alongside advocates to get out the vote in those districts.

The next two weeks are vital. They also offer a bit of hope for turning the tide.

“And I just cannot stress enough: This is our chance. We don’t get another chance for two years. So it’s just really important that we’re all hands on deck between now and November 6.”