The emerging abortion underground

Researchers are set to study the whys of DIY termination.


Lynn Harris
August 27, 2008 6:35PM (UTC)

We can talk until we're blue, or red, or whatever in the face about the future of Roe v. Wade, but that -- "that" being "the on-paper right to abortion" -- doesn't mean much to the women who cannot get legal abortions. Not the women who cannot get legal abortions if Cain-Mcay ecomes-bay esident-pray; the women who cannot get legal abortions now. (Reasons are both real and underinformed: "I'll be fired for leaving work," "I'll have to tell my parents," "No one around here will do it after 12 weeks," "With what money, exactly?" -- and so on.) And as others here and there have reported, more and more women seem to be self-inducing abortion, or at least attempting to. Now ABCNews.com has added itself to the mix, with a heavier-on-anecdote-than-analysis, but still telling, story revealing, for one thing, that the women using Cytotec (one-half of the drugs doctors use to administer legal nonsurgical abortion) are apparently not geographically confined to states where the "little white pill" is available over the counter, just over the border.

"While many may believe that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that overturned laws restricting abortion put an end to improvised abortions, the medical community worries there still may be a problem," the article states. "Now advocacy groups Gynuity and Ibis Reproductive Health are launching a study in San Francisco, New York and Boston to find out how many women go outside the normal clinic abortions, and why."

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In addition to the use of Cytotec, health advocates have also noted an uptick of interest in herbal means of inducing abortion. "I've seen a real increase in the blogs and the chatter in the herb chat rooms about this lately," said Tieraona Low Dog, a physician, herbal expert and former midwife. This, it should be noted, is not just a matter of mixing a little blue cohosh into your Red Zinger. "The most common way is that women take herbs that are poisonous and take enough to poison the baby, but not themselves," added herbal expert Susan Weed. (I'll pause here so you can get the "weed" puns out of your head. Now back to the story.) "This is not easy to do. Unless the woman is sick enough to be throwing up and in serious pain, it's not going to work." (Then, speaking of consulting Dr. Google, there's also the matter of at-home surgical abortion performed by a really, really good friend.)

Of course -- though Cytotec has been associated with uterine rupture -- "throwing up and in serious pain" is not the same as the "infection, hemorrhage, and injury to the internal organs" of even scarier yore (and elsewhere in the world, today). But at-home medical and herbal "abortions" have a high, and emotionally/medically traumatic, failure rate -- and, far closer to the point, when they occur in measurable, study-able numbers, they bespeak the high failure rate of access, perceived and otherwise, to legal abortion. Dr. Daniel Grossman of Ibis -- who hadn't expected to see the same bleeding pregnant women in the San Francisco E.R. as he'd seen while working in Mexico -- believes the forthcoming research will uncover a "common root" (ABC's paraphrase) to these nonclinic abortions. "We want to find what some of the barriers [to reproductive health] are," he told ABC (which buried that lede). "I think that's really what this issue is all about."


Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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