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the Body Politic
Vol. 03, No. 01 - January 1993, Page 13
Copyright © 1993, 1998 by the Body Politic Inc.

The Overground Railroad Builds Up Head of Steam

"As long as even one person wants to impose his will on others, the fight isn't over"

In a nutshell, that's the sentiment that motivates Trish.

"while the legal struggle fills the headlines, the anti-abortion forces are winning the battle in the trenches. By harrassing doctors who perform abortions, picketing their homes and verbally assualting their families, they have intemidated most of them."

"For me, I do this work as a religious witness. I think that controlling your own life is a basic human right. If you can't do that, you're a slave."

Trish and Carol are co-founders of the Overground Railroad, a network that so far, is reaching into 41 states to help women get abortions. The organizers, both Quakers, decline to use last names to protect themselves and the women they help from militant anti-abortion groups.

The first tracks for the Overgound Railroad were laid at an annual conference of Quakers in 1989, just after the Webster ruling granted states permission to pass restrictions on abortion rights.

Who better than the Quakers -- whose track record of service to others included organizing the Underground Railroad -- to take up the mission? Trish pointed out from 1840 to 1865, thousands of slaves were helped to freedom by the Underground Railroad. Now, 130 years later, a new network of volunteers has been enlisted to help women retain the freedom to choose abortion, even if any state tries to severely restrict that right.

This network is called the "Overground", rather than "Underground", Trish explained, because nothing that will be done is illegal. The railroad, through its volunteers, will provide women with information, transportation, housing, an escort to a clinic, or money for transportation and other costs.

True, abortion is still legal and Bill Clinton's ascendence to the presidency makes the overturn of Roe v. Wade less imminent. But in fact, only a minority of women can obtain an abortion.

As Marilyn French wrote in her book, The War Against Women, "while the legal struggle fills the headlines, the anti-abortion forces are winning the battle in the trenches. By harassing doctors who perform abortions, picketing their homes and verbally assaulting their families, they have intimidated most of them."

"From 1977 to 1988, access to abortion decreased by 51 percent", she continued. "Only 17 percent of counties in the country have some kind of abortion service. Half the urban counties and a staggering 93 percent of rural counties had no known abortion services in 1988."

According to a state-by-state review of abortion rights published in 1992 by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the worst off are states like North Dakota with three doctors who perform abortions, and South Dakota, which has one courageous physician who flies from city to city to perform the procedure.

Even populous states like New York have many counties were abortion services are not available. Tens of thousands of New York women live in an area where they have no access to any public transportation except interstate buses.

I really don't see it (abortion) as a religious issue and think it's outrageous that the government is in it. As a religious person, I'm very, very concerned that religion is getting into politics. Separation of church and state is important to me. I would be just as concerned if there was a liberal government trying to impose its will on others

Twelve states have fewer than 10 doctors who perform abortions, the report showed. The upshot is that nationwide, according to Ms. French,

"women with money can travel to obtain legal abortions; poor women and girls are barred from legal abortion as effectively as if by law, in a circumvention of law by intimidation -- terrorism."

The Overground Railroad will be the path for many such women to obtain abortions, said Trish.

According to her, most women seeking help are from inner cities. Many are teens. Few have needed transportation beyond a neighboring state. Trish said that counseling is not offered. "They have to have made up their minds before calling us. No one has said she wasn't sure when she called. They've all been absolutely adamant about wanting an abortion."

The service is confidential, on a first name basis for the protection of both client and volunteer. According to Trish, word has spread quickly. "Actually, we're on the horns of a dilemma about more widely advertising the railroad or its toll-free phone number." All Planned Parenthood clinics and abortion providers nationwide know how to reach the railroad. Making information more widely available would invite crank calls and harassment from groups like Operation Rescue, said Trish.

She and her colleagues are well aware of the terrorist tactics used by Operation Rescue to intimidate abortion rights activists. In recruiting and screening volunteers, "We follow our instincts. If we don't like the sound of someone, we don't add the person to our list. We shamelessly check on people. We're very worried about moles, she said.

Operating from her home in a staunchly Republican conservative community, Trish said not even her next-door neighbor knows what she's doing. Were her business to become public, Trish has no doubt there would be trouble. As it is, each time she rounds the corner on her way home, she wonders if her home will still be standing.


The railroad has taken on a life of its own since 1989, growing quickly from two to approximately 1,200 magnificent volunteers.

One such volunteer can be found in Binghamton, NY; hometown to Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry. Here, Libby Anderson is organizing a station of the Overground Railroad through her church, Binghamton's Unitarian Universalist parish.

A devoted pro-choice activist, Ms. Anderson is co-founder of the Susquehanna PA Coalition for Free Choice and liaison to the Broome County Coalition For Free Choice. Traveling across the border between Pennsylvania (where Ms. Anderson lives) to get an abortion at one of Binghamton's two abortion clinics is a well-worn route. As Pennsylvania moves to enforce the Abortion Control Act that restricts a woman's right to abortion, traffic is expected to get even heavier.

Fortunately for Pennsylvania women, New York shares a long border with PA and New York service providers are gearing up to provide health care to its "southern" neighbors.

What drew Ms. Anderson into this fray?

"I really don't see it (abortion) as a religious issue and think it's outrageous that the government is in it. As a religious person, I'm very, very concerned that religion is getting into politics. Separation of church and state is important to me. I would be just as concerned if there was a liberal government trying to impose its will on others," she said.

The threat of harassment by anti-abortion foes does not intimidate Ms. Anderson, a former clinic escort. Neither does it deter Marcel Duhamel, minister of the Unitarian Universalist church, and former president of the Broome County Coalition For Free Choice. Both have faced off with Mr. Terry's followers, and expect to again.

"We know they're not about to go away, but I trust we're not about to go away, either," said Rev. Duhamel.

Why would Rev. Duhamel get involved in the Overground Railroad and urge his congregants to do the same?

During a recent sermon, he explained his reasons.

"Sometimes it's very frustrating. You confront the world and ask, 'What can I do?' Most of the time you shrug in dismay. You feel very disconnected - that there's little that you as an individual can do to build a better world."

"This", said Rev. Duhamel, "is something I can do."


The Clergy Counseling Service, founded in the 1960's, was very instrumental in legalizing abortion. Ministers in the 1990's can still play a part in helping women find health care.

Women seeking information and help should call their nearest Planned Parenthood. There is an affiliate in every state, usually located in a major city. Unitarian churches can also put women in touch with the Overground Railroad.

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