Nationwide Campaign To Create an Abortion Sanctuary Network Starts in New York

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Women rally for reproductive rights in Terryville, N.Y., on May 14, 2022. (J. Conrad Williams Jr. / Newsday RM via Getty Images)

Faced with the likely end of Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights advocates are seeking to create a nationwide sanctuary network for abortion services by passing interlocking legislation in blue states to ensure every American can safely access legal abortion services.

In May, New York Assemblymember Charles Lavine introduced the Geraldine Santoro Act to help women from states banning abortion to travel to New York and obtain abortion healthcare.

“The Santoro Act is the first step toward creating a nationwide sanctuary network for women in need and the first-ever private-public partnership to build a war chest to ensure reproductive autonomy,” said Lavine when he introduced the bill.

The bill is named after Geraldine Santoro, who died from an unsafe abortion in 1964. A police photograph of her dead body, published in Ms. magazine in 1973, became a symbol of the abortion rights movement in the United States.

The legislation would establish an office within the New York Department of Health that would create a nonprofit corporation to administer the program with a $15 million appropriation. The nonprofit would facilitate travel arrangements, lodging and medical appointments for women who need them, and pay the costs where eligible. The law encourages the nonprofit to enter into pacts with other states that enact similar laws so states can pool their resources, serve the greatest number of patients and use their funds in the most efficient manner. The goal is that patients “can be treated in the least disruptive and most compassionate manner, with the least amount of travel.”

Supporters of the bill hope for passage of replica Santoro acts in state legislatures across the country.

“What we’re talking about is the departments of health in all of these states coming together and forming an umbrella group to run the infrastructure,” said attorney Jim Walden, who drafted the legislation and is a managing partner at Walden, Macht & Haran. “That’s important to make sure that the application process is easy, accessible and well known, and that it happens quickly, especially for those women that are in crisis, so that they can get accurate information and get immediate attention and services.”

The law encourages the nonprofit to enter into pacts with other states that enact similar laws so states can pool their resources, serve the greatest number of patients and use their funds in the most efficient manner.

Walden, who is leading the fundraising efforts directed at private philanthropists for a new abortion access fund, explained how the process would work.

“We need the departments of health from all of the sanctuary states to come together and adopt a common application, available in every language imaginable, on a central website. The steering committee of all of these different states would administer the program and there’d be staff. They would all then have a set of policies, procedures and protocols that were understood and well known within this multistate agency,” said Walden.

The bill provides for a fast-track option in which applicants for financial assistance receive notice of the determination on their application within 48 hours of the application’s receipt.

Walden also says that states would have a “concerted fundraising effort and compacts between the states. They would have contracts with airlines and with national hotels, and individual contracts with abortion providers and other professionals, so that there’s high quality services at the lowest possible cost. All that infrastructure needs to be built,” Walden told Ms.

Another section of the act replicates the Texas bounty hunter law in reverse, creating a right for anyone to bring a civil action against any person who obstructs, impedes or hinders any woman from exercising the right to abortion, any medical professional who provides abortions or abortion-related services to any woman, or anyone who aids or abets any action interfering with access to abortion. Courts can award successful plaintiffs damages in an amount of not less than $50,000 for each abortion the defendant obstructed in violation of the law, as well as attorneys’ fees.

New York Assembly is out of session now, but Lavine is committed to reintroducing the legislation in the fall. In the meantime, advocates are using the summer to amend the bill to provide more protections for telehealth abortion care for women who cannot travel to New York. This includes defining the physician services as occurring in the state of where the prescription was written rather than where the patient is located, so that New York doctors can prescribe and send abortion pills to people in states banning abortion. The law will also help insulate New York telemedicine abortion providers from civil or criminal liability in regressive states. Walden is now drafting a legislative template that other states can use and customize to their needs and existing laws.

Celebrities Support Nationwide Sanctuary Network

Over 100 celebrities and high-profile activists signed an open letter supporting the Santoro Act. The letter declares:

“We are outraged that, after five decades, the Supreme Court seems poised to turn back the clock and take away Roe v. Wade‘s promise of women’s rights to bodily autonomy. We all know that overturning Roe will have a disproportionate impact on women of color and low-income women. We must do everything we can to protect the health and rights of the millions of women, including low-income women, who will imminently lose the right to make decisions about their own bodies.”

This open letter, signed by celebrities and high-profile activists, shows support for the Geraldine Santoro Act. Introduced by New York Assemblymember Charles Lavine, this bill aims to provide full protection for women seeking abortion and other medical services.
Open letter supporting the Santoro Act and urging accessible abortion healthcare.

Signers of the letter are speaking out individually as well. Documentary film director Chris Hegedus said, “We need a multipronged strategy for protecting women’s rights and abortion access in this country. Yes, we need to protest, but we also need a serious, coordinated legislative strategy.”

The Santoro Act was inspired by Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which was leaked in early May. The opinion indicated that the Supreme Court is preparing to overturn the 49-year-old precedent Roe v. Wade, which recognized the constitutional right to abortion healthcare. If Roe is overturned, 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion, leaving over 33 million women of reproductive age without access to legal abortion healthcare in their own states and forcing them to travel long distances to receive this care.

“I fully support this initiative to prioritize access to safe and legal abortion services for all women in the United States regardless of their geography or economic means,” said actor Daphne Rubin-Vega. “We stand to protect women’s health by specifically addressing the state legislatures across the country that imperil our bodies, our quality of life and our basic humanity.”

When the New York legislative session reconvenes in the fall, Lavine has pledged to reintroduce the Santoro Act. Advocates are reaching out to organization for support and to legislators across the country in hopes they will introduce similar legislation to create a nationwide sanctuary network.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.