It happened quietly and quickly.
And now, no one’s allowed to talk about it.
The story comes out of New
Jersey. There, the Cherry Hill Women’s Center provides reproductive
and gynecological health services, including abortions. It was established
in the 1970s, and is a member of the National Abortion Federation and
the National Coalition of Abortion Providers.
As part of the center’s support
services, it developed a partnership with a local hotel, the Clarion
Hotel & Conference Center, to offer out-of-town abortion patients
a discounted rate on a room.
On October 20, LifeNews, an
online anti-abortion publication, published an article that reported on
this partnership, drawing on information it received from New Jersey
Right to Life.
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"The Clarion Hotel in Cherry
Hill offers a reduced rate of $59 for a room originally priced at $109
to women staying there from out of town to get an abortion. Women need
only show a receipt from the abortion business saying an overnight stay
is necessary," according to the article.
It also indicated that the
Quality Inn in Maple Shade, NJ, had a similar arrangement with the same
LifeNews described how anti-abortion
groups were beginning to boycott the hotels, and urged its readership
to further protest a policy that it said was aiding those who want to
skirt parental notification laws in other states (New Jersey itself
doesn’t have a parental notification law; attempts to ban interstate travel of teens seeking abortion have never become law). LifeNews offered contact
information for the hotels so readers could address them directly, and,
presumably, articulate their distress at the policy.
Within just a couple days,
other anti-abortion groups picked up the story, and passed it to their
own email lists and membership bases. The Family Research Council, in
an email blast, wrote alarmingly of how the hotels are "profiting"
off of abortion by offering the discounted rates. It is unclear why
the FRC believes that renting rooms at less than cost to certain guests
brings the hotel a profit.
"Of course, the hotels may
honestly believe that theirs is a compassionate offer. But even with
the best of intentions, a discount like this only makes it more affordable
for young girls to cross state lines for an abortion," claimed Tony Perkins’s Washington Update, an FRC e-newsletter. "Ironically, both the Quality Inn and the Clarion are part of an umbrella
corporation called Choice Hotels International. Join us in urging the
Choice chain to choose life."
Their members did just that.
By October 24, Family Research Council passed on another e-newsletter to its base, this
time celebrating that the email/telephone protest against the policy
that spread across the larger anti-abortion community worked. The Clarion
Hotel had decided to cease offering discounted rates to patients of
the Cherry Hill Women’s Center.
From the FRC e-newsletter:
If you don’t believe that
a few minutes of your time can change the world, we can prove it. On
Wednesday, the Update highlighted a story from New Jersey where two
hotels were offering room discounts to women who could prove they had
abortions at a nearby clinic. We encouraged you to contact the franchise
and voice your values. Today, I’m happy to report that after just two
days, your overwhelming response through phone calls and emails has
resulted in an immediate change of policy.
Yesterday, we received a letter from the corporate office of Choice
Hotels. It reads, "’A copy of the Washington Update (dated October
22, 2008)… recently crossed my desk. It referenced two hotels within
the Choice Hotels franchise system. The email message highlighted your
organization’s concerns regarding these hotels, and I wanted to take
this opportunity to respond to you directly as this issue has been resolved.
The Clarion Hotel & Conference Center, upon reflection, has ended
the practice of offering special rates to patients of the Cherry Hill
Women’s Center… we do try to be sensitive to issues and questions
raised when it is within our power to do so and we are happy to provide
you with this positive update…’ Sincerely, Anne Madison, Vice President,
Corporate Communications, Choice Hotels International, Inc."
We applaud Choice Hotels for moving so swiftly to correct this problem
and congratulate all of you who took the time to be pro-active–and
perhaps save a few lives in the process.
"The Clarion Hotel paid attention
to their local market and decided to make this change," said David
Peikin, senior director of corporate communications at Choice Hotels
International, when asked by Rewire for further comment. He
also said that CHI heard from The Quality Inn that the hotel never did
offer discounted rates to patients of the women’s center.
Peiken added that the policy
to offer or not offer a discount to women’s center patients did not
originate with CHI.
"We heard from the concerned
public and of course we passed on what we heard to (the hotels),"
Peiken said. "We offer some national rates and discounts, but the
local ones are negotiated locally."
This was as much information
as Peiken was willing to offer; he did not answer further questions.
Meanwhile, repeated phone calls to the Clarion Hotel itself resulted
"We’re not allowed to talk
about that," said one Clarion Hotel desk clerk who did not give her
"I’m not going to answer
questions on this," said another Clarion Hotel employee who did not
give his name or title, but who was described by the desk clerk as a
"We don’t do business with
them (the Cherry Hill Women’s Center)," the Clarion manager said
before hanging up abruptly.
And so, it’s as if it never
was. The support once offered by the Clarion Hotel for patients of its
local women’s center is swiftly rescinded and silenced.
While the Family Research Council, LifeNews, and
other organizations that oppose abortion rights celebrate the change,
and the Clarion Hotel avoids it, there is no indication that they will
offer any concrete alternative to the patients of the Cherry Hill Women’s
Center who don’t have a place to stay.
It’s an especially pertinent
point. In New Jersey, 19% of counties and two metropolitan areas had
no abortion provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In the Northeast census region that includes New Jersey, 11% of women
traveled at least 50 miles to have an abortion, and a further three
percent traveled more than 100 miles. It’s apparent that lack of immediate
local access to abortion requires many girls and women to travel to
New Jersey actually has a lower
rate of counties without an abortion provider than most states, including
those that border it. Eight percent of New York counties lack an abortion provider, according
to the National Women’s Law Center. Pennsylvania has a rate of 39%.
Delaware: 17%. And the Family Research Council is right about one thing: with restrictive
policies preventing teenagers and women from obtaining abortions in
states across the nation, those with higher concentrations of abortion providers and with less invasive laws are indeed more likely to attract women seeking abortion.
What’s more, the Cherry Hill
Women’s Center offers second trimester abortions and non-surgical
abortions. Both of these procedures require two-day appointments;
patients, then, must have a local place to stay overnight to enable proper medical monitoring and care. For women who don’t live in town, or who are
struggling already to pay for the abortion and their travel, discounted
lodging at local hotels is a crucial part of making the procedure accessible.
Travel and Lodging A Critical Component of Abortion Access
Stephanie Poggi is the executive
director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a coalition of 106
funds that provide people seeking an abortion with referral, financial,
and emotional support. Many of these funds offer traveling and lodging
support, Poggi said, and with the current economic downturn, that need
"We’re getting tons of
calls from women who are economically disadvantaged, and there’s more
of those than ever," Poggi said. "They don’t have the gas money
to drive four hours [to the nearest clinic]. They’re laid off, or
are under the prospect of being laid off."
The financial burden on women seeking abortion is exacerbated by the
fact that only 15 states cover abortion with Medicaid, and even in those
states that do, many people aren’t able to take advantage of it. Immigrants,
for example, have to wait five years before they quality for Medicaid.
As well, Poggi added, lodging
is an added burden in states that have a 24-hour required waiting period
Half of the counties in Southern
and Midwestern states don’t have an abortion provider, meaning that
travel is an especially big barrier for people seeking abortions. But,
Poggi, pointed out, that doesn’t mean "safe states" with fewer
restrictive laws and a higher number of providers — states like New
Jersey — are free of burdens.
"Even states that are ‘better’
have problems with full access," Poggi said. "No state is free of
She pointed out that "women
with money will be able to travel anywhere to have an abortion if they
need it. It’s the lower-income women who are being hurt by all this."
What’s the good news then?
To fill the void and make abortions
an accessible and healthy experience for those who need them, thousands
of individuals and organizations are stepping up. NNAF groups are run
almost entirely by volunteers. Haven, for example, is a New York abortion
fund that hosts women in the homes of volunteers when they must travel
for an abortion. Other funds house women in hotels, or offer vouchers
to ease the cost. Sometimes there are discounted meals at local restaurants
available, ensuring that patients will be able to eat.
In a time of greater need and
greater scarcity, in a time when anti-abortion activists are angling
to cut off support services abruptly while offering no safe alternative,
it’s the compassionate action of the abortion funds and those individuals
who simply lend their time and care that’s making all the difference.
"The National Network of Abortion Funds last year raised
over $3 million and helped over 20,000 women," Poggi said. "Volunteers
are doing this work out of their own compassion, and the word is spreading."
Gaylon Alcaraz, executive director
of the Chicago Abortion Fund, said she too sees the need for practical
support increasing. Alcaraz
said that the fund is receiving calls from "all across Chicagoland
and Illinois, parts of Missouri and Indiana where there are no abortion
providers, people who are coming to Chicago for an abortion and definitely
need practical support for transportation and lodging."
Poggi acknowledged that a sustainable
solution requires more systemic change. She’s pleased that allies
of the NNAF are increasingly organizing around the economic barriers
to safe and accessible abortion. Until that happens, however, the funds
are needed to offer the safe alternatives that are unavailable elsewhere.