Two recent studies offer some information about how American women end their own pregnancies. Both note that only a small percentage of women have attempted to abort without the help of medical practitioners, though it should be kept in mind that this is the sort of information that many prefer not to speak about. Reviewing the studies in Slate, Sharon Lerner writes that, after the passage of Roe v. Wade, ‘interest in self-help abortion methods inevitably faded’—but news reports suggest that self-induced abortions might be on the rise.
About the two studies: A study in the current issue of American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology surveyed 9,493 women at health care facilities that provide abortions; more than 2 percent had tried to induce abortions on their own. In the other study, published in Reproductive Health Matters, 1,425 women responded to surveys in clinic waiting rooms, with 4.6 percent saying they had tried to induce their own abortions.
Of the women surveyed, there was a preference for ‘natural—or at least natural-seeming—methods’ including
various herbs, vitamin C, birth control pills, laxatives, and a beverage cart worth of strange concoctions, including coffee with lemon, warm Coca-Cola with baking soda, various syrups, and Malta, a wheat soda
The researchers were first interested in the use of the ulcer medication misoprostol to self-induce an abortion, as this drug causes uterine contractions and is used by doctors along with mifepristone (RU-486), to induce medical abortions early in pregnancy. However, the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology found that less than half the women surveyed used misoprostol.
According to lawyer Carol Downer—who serves on the board of Feminist Women’s Health Centers of California and ‘pioneered a method of early abortion known as “menstrual extraction“‘—there is a new ‘”surge”‘ of interest in ‘do-it-yourself’ abortion. Lerner recounts some tragic stories of women often teenagers, who, not having the funds for a clinic or fearing the consequences of their mother finding out, tried to induce an abortion:
There was Amber Abreu, the Massachusetts teenager arrested in 2007 for taking misoprostol, an ulcer medication which causes uterine contractions and which is used by doctors, in tandem with mifepristone (RU-486), to induce medical abortions early in pregnancy. She delivered a tiny infant who survived for four days. (Stories in Mother Jones and elsewhere have speculated that since misoprostol is now widely available online, many women may be using it as Abreu did, to induce their own abortions.) And in 2009, the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine published the case study of a 24-year-old who had actually used a coat hanger to abort (she wound up needing a hysterectomy) while a young woman in Utah made headlines when she paid a guy $150 to beat her until she miscarried.
The Internet has, not surprisingly, played a ‘key role’ in providing women with information about a ‘DIY’ abortion. Lerner describes two such ‘detailed guides.’ When these self-inductions are unsuccessful, some women have had to have clinic abortions which, as they may occur after a delay, may be ‘a more involved, more expensive ordeal.’ Or, if a woman continues her pregnancy, there is the risk of birth defects in their child.
As Lerner writes, a ‘DIY’ abortion may be the only option in countries where abortion is illegal. But it is not in the US and, as Wendy Chavkin, a physician and professor of public health and gynecology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, says:
“The point of having legal abortion is to make it safe and a decent, dignified experience……People should get legal, good care, not second rate care.”
Care2 blogger Jessica Pieklo wrote last year about a 13 year old in Pennsylvania who tried to perform an abortion on herself with a pencil; the girl ‘became horribly sick, began having contractions, and ultimately delivered the baby at home.’ The girl had apparently been ‘in a sexual relationship with Michael James Lisk, a 30-year-old man who has now been charged with rape and concealing the death of a child’ — apparently the girl was in contact with Lisk while she was in labor and ‘Lisk came to the girl’s house and removed the baby in a plastic bag and buried it in a wooded area.’ As Jessica writes:
Abortion access would not have changed the tragic nature of a predator impregnating a child, and hopefully the law takes care of Lisk. The fact that this relationship even happened shows a cultural failure that started long before the pregnancy. But when women and girls have open access to reproductive health services it can mean the difference between the loss of one life or two. This girl got lucky, if you can call surviving a DIY abortion and having your sexual victimhood exposed as luck. And a culture that supports open access to abortion care is a culture that has recognized that women and girls have worth, that their lives and their health have independent value, a lesson clearly needed in the case of this young teen.
The girl used a pencil because, as Jessica writes, ‘that’s what happens when desperation sets in.’ And, as the two new studies and the news reports that Lerner cites suggests, the 13-year-old was not–is not—alone in her desperation.
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