After watching multiple state legislatures pass new laws that would make it difficult or nearly impossible to obtain an abortion, Shelley O’Brien started thinking about the Underground Railroad that helped enslaved people in the antebellum South make their way north to freedom, she told the Detroit Free Press.
If a comparable network could help today’s women access safe and legal abortions, she wanted to be part of it. And as the manager of a hotel, she had something to offer them: A free place to stay.
From Yale, Mich., a conservative meat-processing town with less than 2,000 people in the state’s eastern “thumb,” the nearest abortion providers are roughly an hour drive away. For O’Brien, the manager of the Yale Hotel, that was close enough to be of help.
“Dear sisters that live in Alabama, Ohio, Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, or any of the other states that follow with similar laws restricting access,” the 55-year-old mother of three wrote on the hotel’s Facebook page in May. “We cannot do anything about the way you are being treated in your home state. But, if you can make it to Michigan, we will support you with several nights lodging, and transportation to and from your appointment.”
“Between gas and lodging, you’re looking at probably $300 or $400 that you’re going to put out on top of the cost of abortion,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “And if you’re having an abortion because you have no way to provide for a baby, then how are you going to drum up $1,000 or $1,500 to do it? If I can help at all in that, it satisfies the social worker in me.”
Her offer of support was one of several to make headlines in recent weeks, as Republican lawmakers and abortion rights advocates gear up for bruising court battles. Though none of the restrictive new laws in states such as Alabama, Ohio and Georgia have gone into effect yet, and many are being litigated in court, supporters of legalized abortion are preparing for a nation with more restrictive access to the procedure by offering temporary lodging in more liberal states or volunteering to cover pregnant women’s travel costs.
Last week, Brandon Wade, the founder of CEO and SeekingArrangement, posted a video offering to pay for Alabama women’s abortions, as well as the costs they would incur by traveling out of state. (SeekingArrangement is a dating site where wealthy men can seek out attractive women for what the site describes as “mutually beneficial relationships.”) In the video, Wade explained that his girlfriend and her sister, both Alabama natives, had wept after the state passed the nation’s most stringent abortion ban in May, virtually outlawing the procedure unless a woman’s health is at risk.
Wade had wondered why women in Alabama couldn’t simply travel to another state to get an abortion, he said. His girlfriend explained that many couldn’t afford to. In an interview with The Hill, he said that he plans to use $500,000 to $1 million to set up a new charity, which would then make the funds available to women who are up to three months pregnant. The move was immediately derided by antiabortion group Students for Life of America as a “publicity stunt.”
The restrictive new laws have also inspired a grass-roots effort nicknamed the “Auntie Network.” On social media, hundreds of women have posted open invitations for friends, acquaintances and strangers from other states to come stay with them. Though Auntie Network posts don’t usually use the word “abortion,” the posters make it clear that they will provide cover for anyone who wants to visit their “aunt” in a state where the procedure is legal.
“Some invitations are written hyper-cautiously, as if in anticipation of a backlash,” observed The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse. “Attorneys have raised concerns that the new measures could penalize those who seek abortions across state lines. And so we see some aunties suggest that itineraries could include touristy selfies in front of landmarks. ‘Proof’ that the trip was merely a vacation.”
Critics of the Auntie Network have pointed out that existing restrictions on abortion already require many women to travel out of state for the procedure, and nonprofit abortion funds already exist to provide them with financial and logistical support. In a May editorial for Rewire News, Yamani Hernandez, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, argued that supporting those organizations would be more helpful than trying to duplicate their efforts.
“Abortion funds thoroughly train and vet their volunteers to ensure the people calling for help will get the best assistance available, no matter what it is,” she wrote. “They are already connected to networks across state lines and best poised to facilitate care effectively. For the safety of those who need help and protection, this is a time to build our ranks — not attempt to create new structures."
In Yale, which is best known for hosting an annual bologna festival, O’Brien’s message to abortion-seekers has been largely uncontroversial. Since May 16, when she first made the offer, her Facebook post has been shared over 3,000 times and received thousands of comments, most of them positive. Though the area is fairly conservative — Donald Trump won the 2016 election with roughly 65 percent of the vote in Yale — no one has shown up at the hotel to protest or confront her in person, she told the Free Press last week.
“I have had one person call to say that he thought it was wrong,” she said. “He didn’t have Facebook, but he heard about it and he wanted to let me know that he thought what we are doing is wrong. And I’ve been called a baby killer. And it’s like, ‘No, I’m not killing babies in the basement. I am just giving someone a place to stay or maybe a ride.’"
In fact, she said, other women have responded and offered to pitch in, volunteering to provide rides to and from Yale. The surge of publicity also brought in an extra $400 in business during the first week that she announced the offer. Though she is trying to renovate the historic hotel on a limited budget, O’Brien told the Free Press that she donated $100 to the Yellowhammer Fund, a nonprofit that helps women get abortions in Alabama. If other customers choose to stay with her because of the new policy, she said, a quarter of the proceeds will be donated to other abortion funds.
In Michigan, the Republican-dominated legislature voted in May to ban a common procedure for performing second-trimester abortions unless a patient’s life is at risk. Doctors who perform the procedure would face felony charges and a sentence of two years in prison. However, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has said that she will veto the bill. A group called Right to Life of Michigan plans to introduce a ballot proposal to circumvent her veto, according to the Free Press.
Historically, only a small percentage of the woman obtaining abortions in Michigan have traveled from out of state to do so, the paper reported, and O’Brien hasn’t had anyone take her up on her offer so far. She’s keeping one room in the three-story hotel open just in case, calling it Jane’s Room in honor of the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade. She’s also extending her offer to women in parts of Michigan that have no abortion clinics, and anyone else who is unable to get an abortion where they live.
“Women should have autonomy over their own bodies,” she told CNN.