Meet the Chicagoans Who Are Opening Their Homes to Abortion-Seekers

Right-wing lawmakers are restricting abortion access. These volunteers are expanding it.

Veronica Arreola December 28, 2017

Kate Barutha, 29, began volunteering with the Midwest Access Coalition after the 2016 election. She provides a bed, home-cooked meals and emotional support to people traveling to Chicago for abortion care. (Sebastián Hidalgo)

CHICA­GO — Once a month, Mor­gan Mal­one pre­pares to host a stranger in her South Side home. She con­sults a thor­ough email about her guest’s needs, shops for snacks and cooks meals. She checks that there are clean sheets on the guest bed, a jour­nal and plen­ty of san­i­tary pads. Her guest is trav­el­ing to Chica­go for an abortion.

Since its founding in 2014, the Midwest Access Coalition has served more than 215 people from 14 states and has never turned away a request.

When a friend sent her a link to the Mid­west Access Coali­tion and asked her to come to a vol­un­teer infor­ma­tion ses­sion, Mal­one — an extreme­ly social Black woman who has per­formed in the Vagi­na Mono­logues and advo­cat­ed against female gen­i­tal muti­la­tion — did not think twice. She quick­ly joined 90 oth­er vol­un­teers who cre­ate a warm and lov­ing envi­ron­ment of support.

Accord­ing to the Guttmach­er Insti­tute, 90 per­cent of coun­ties in the Unit­ed States in 2014 did not have a sin­gle clin­ic pro­vid­ing abor­tions. This means that many peo­ple seek­ing to ter­mi­nate a preg­nan­cy must trav­el, often to a large city like Chicago.

Illi­nois also sits in the mid­dle of a dough­nut of restric­tive Mid­west­ern abor­tion laws. Iowa, Indi­ana and Wis­con­sin ban abor­tion after 20 weeks, while Illi­nois uses the more flex­i­ble stan­dard of whether a fetus can sur­vive out­side the womb. Indi­ana, Wis­con­sin, Mis­souri, Michi­gan and Ken­tucky require ultra­sounds and state-direct­ed coun­sel­ing, which Illi­nois does not. In Indi­ana, the coun­sel­ing must be done in per­son at least 18 hours pri­or to the pro­ce­dure, neces­si­tat­ing two trips to the doctor.

Trav­el­ing to Chica­go is a way to avoid these bur­den­some process­es. The Mid­west Access Coali­tion assists with hous­ing, trans­porta­tion and oth­er neces­si­ties often not cal­cu­lat­ed into the cost of the pro­ce­dure (which alone aver­ages $700). Since its found­ing in 2014, the Mid­west Access Coali­tion has served more than 215 peo­ple from 14 states and has nev­er turned away a request.

Vic­ki (a pseu­do­nym), who lives in one of these more restric­tive states, already had three chil­dren when she became preg­nant again. She took a bus, then a train, then anoth­er bus to Chica­go to get an abor­tion with the help of the coali­tion. She left her two eldest, ages 6 and 8, at home with a care­tak­er and brought her 2‑year-old. Her host was Kate Barutha, a bub­bly, white, 29-year-old arts admin­is­tra­tor who decid­ed to vol­un­teer as a host after the 2016 election.

Vic­ki had beau­ti­ful long black hair, Barutha recalls, which swayed as she spoke about her strug­gle with her deci­sion. Vic­ki talked about life, death, heav­en and hell, and whether this was the right deci­sion for her fam­i­ly. She spoke of her plans to con­tin­ue her edu­ca­tion while pro­vid­ing for three chil­dren. The deci­sion of whether to ter­mi­nate a preg­nan­cy is rarely tak­en light­ly. Women often choose to do so based on under­em­ploy­ment, a lack of hous­ing or a lack of famil­ial support.

Vic­ki did decide to ter­mi­nate her preg­nan­cy. As she recu­per­at­ed at Barutha’s house, her 2‑year-old warmed up to Barutha and delight­ed in see­ing the hun­dreds of planes that fly through the Chica­go skies every day. Over text mes­sages and meals, Barutha and Vic­ki talked about what the future would hold.

She seemed to be alone in life,” says Barutha. She texted me all the way back home.” All of the hosts have train­ing in dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions and can call a vol­un­teer emo­tion­al sup­port helper for back­up. Mal­one and Barutha find their guests appre­ci­ate just being near a sup­port­ive per­son. Too often clients are on their own, either lit­er­al­ly or emotionally.

The Mid­west Access Coali­tion rotates hosts to avoid burnout, know­ing that it’s a big com­mit­ment to open one’s home to a stranger once a month for up to four nights. But Mal­one and Barutha clear­ly thrive on the work. Barutha speaks of the impor­tance of bod­i­ly auton­o­my. Mal­one talks about how a racist and patri­ar­chal med­ical sys­tem often makes deci­sions for women (and espe­cial­ly women of col­or) with­out con­sult­ing them. This work of mak­ing abor­tion a real option is one way she com­bats those forces.

Mid­west Access Coalition’s founder, Leah Green­blum, says she envi­sions a world where peo­ple can access abor­tion on demand regard­less of race, class and geography.”

Until that world arrives,” she says, the Mid­west Access Coalition’s work is necessary.”

Veron­i­ca Arreo­la is a fem­i­nist who works on diver­si­ty in sci­ence issues at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go. She writes on repro­duc­tive jus­tice, pop cul­ture and pol­i­tics at Bitch Media, where she serves on the board of directors.
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