Assemb. Constance Cook (R-Ithaca) introduces a bill legalizing abortion in New York...

Assemb. Constance Cook (R-Ithaca) introduces a bill legalizing abortion in New York state in Albany on March 30, 1970. Credit: AP/Steve Starr

In the nearly three years before the Supreme Court's 1973 nationwide legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade, New York became a destination for women who could afford the trip to terminate their pregnancy.

Starting in 1970, abortions had become legal in New York for any reason up to 24 weeks of pregnancy — and whenever a woman's life was at risk. New York was “the Abortion Capital of the Country,” The New York Times reported in 1971.

Now, nearly 52 years later, with a leaked draft opinion suggesting that the court is on the precipice of overturning Roe and returning the question of abortion's legality to individual states, a blue state like New York could once again become a place for women from elsewhere seeking abortions who wouldn’t be able to get the procedure legally in certain red states.

In 2019, 8.9% of New York abortions, or 6,989 out of 78,587, were performed on out-of-state women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Abortion Surveillance report. But during the first year of legalized abortion in New York, beginning in 1970, more than half of the 181,821 abortions were done on out-of-state women, the state Health Department reported at the time.

Subsidizing travel for abortion

At least 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion if Roe falls, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which supports legalized abortion.

So companies such as Amazon, Citi, Tesla and Apple are planning to offer benefits to employees traveling to states like New York for an abortion. 

And for non-New Yorkers who can’t afford the trip, on Monday the state attorney general, Letitia James, joined by state lawmakers, highlighted support for a proposed fund to subsidize those from out-of-state. Under legislation creating the fund, the state would pay for ground and air transportation, gas money, lodging, meals, child care, translation services and doulas. 

Sarah Weddington, the attorney who represented "Jane Roe" in the Roe...

Sarah Weddington, the attorney who represented "Jane Roe" in the Roe v. Wade case in 1973, speaks at a 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade program on Jan. 16, 2003, sponsored by organizations including the Hofstra University School of Law and Planned Parenthood of Nassau County. Credit: Newsday Staff/Kathy Kmonicek

Some in California have also said that state hopes to become a “sanctuary” for such women.

New York, as of 2019, already has the country's second-highest number of abortions performed on out-of-state women, behind Illinois, the CDC report shows. And even now, there are nonprofits that offer to pay for such travel. 

But in the 1970s, those seeking abortions generally had to pay their own way. Thus, typically, only the affluent from out of state could take advantage of New York’s abortion law, at the time the nation’s most liberal on the books.

Alaska, Hawaii and Washington would also repeal abortion prohibitions before the Roe decision — Hawaii did it first, in March 1970; New York was second. But only New York didn’t require residency to get an abortion.

“This is an era in which women had to cross state borders the way they’d usually cross national borders in wartime,” said Katie Watson, a bioethicist, lawyer and associate professor at Northwestern University, describing pre-Roe America. She added: “So New York became a safe place for folks to go — across the country — and they flocked there.”

The Times in 1971 reported that most out-of-state women arranged abortions in New York through commercial agencies, which advertised their services. 

"Some of the ads are restrained and sober, like those on the slick pages of the national magazines; others are tasteless and tacky — a squib on a matchbook cover, a notice on the back pages of a tabloid squeezed in among the racing results and used‐car ads; even, believe it or not, a banner drawn by a blimp flying over a beach in Miami," The Times reported.

The Guttmacher Institute said in 2003: "A serious consequence of having to travel long distances to obtain an abortion was the resulting delay in having the procedure performed, which could raise the risk of complications for the woman."

During the first year of the New York law being in effect, two-thirds of the state's legal abortions — 139,042 — were in New York City. Nassau County had the second-most in the state, with 10,885, with over half for out-of-state women, Newsday reported at the time. Suffolk had the sixth-most outside of the city, with 2,381 abortions, though all but 180 were for women from the county.

Statewide, 3 in 4 abortions were performed on white women, according to Newsday at the time.

But the demographics have since changed, with white New Yorkers, for example, making up 21% of abortions in 2019; Hispanic New Yorkers, 23%; and Black New Yorkers, 32%, according to 2019 state Health Department statistics, which don’t break out other races.

New York’s abortion law, co-written by an upstate assemblywoman named Constance E. Cook, passed April 10, 1970 — by the last-minute change of a single vote, a state assemblyman from a Catholic-dominant county in the Finger Lakes region, George M. Michaels — and took effect July 1 of that year.

Initially, as “out-of-state women flocked here,” Newsday reported, “hospitals turned women away. Others put them on waiting lists that stretched an agonizing three and four weeks and longer.” Newsday reported then that a clinic abortion then cost $150 or about $1,064 in 2022 dollars.

By the anniversary of the law, the logjam was broken, and the scheduling chaos ebbed. And that year, New York saw fewer live births, fewer babies born to unwed mothers and fewer babies available for adoption.

A one-time crime in NY

Before legalization — the state's first anti-abortion law was circa 1829 — the police would conduct stings, stage raids and make arrests of those suspected of providing, or helping with, the procedure.

“Nassau police cracked what is believed to have been a high-priced abortion mill last night of a 45-year-old former doctor’s wife on charges of criminal abortion,” Newsday reported Oct. 24, 1951: a makeshift clinic where abortions cost $1,000 and were performed in a Great Neck home on a kitchen table.

The wife “did no operating herself,” Newsday reported, “but under the law her assistance made her equally as guilty.”

Now, if Roe is reversed, there are questions about potential interstate travel restrictions for those seeking abortions. Might an abortion-limiting state, perhaps via civil or even criminal liability, ban traveling to obtain an abortion in a permissive state? How about those who help a woman go get an abortion in a place like New York — paying for the procedure, giving the woman a ride or otherwise being a so-called aider and abettor?

In a preview of what could become more prevalent in abortion-restricting states, Professor Watson noted, a Missouri lawmaker had proposed, even before the leaked draft, letting private citizens sue someone who helps a Missouri resident get an out-of-state abortion. Missouri has seen thousands of its residents go to neighboring Illinois for abortions after Missouri passed one of the nation's strictest abortion laws.

Whether restrictions on travel are constitutional would ultimately be adjudicated by the courts, Watson said: “We will find out in the coming years.”

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