Could Self-Induced Abortions Be On the Rise?

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.

Previous Care2 coverage

13 Year Old Performs Abortion At Home: Time To Rethink Parental Notification Laws

South Dakota Legislature To Approve Murdering Abortion Providers

Santorum: Obama Should Be Anti-Abortion Since He’s Black [VIDEO]

photo courtesy of erkillian5 via Flickr


Hillary B.
Hillary G. B6 years ago

Amber M.: Who died and made you God? Not only have you judged someone else, but you have decided that a woman making the best choice for herself is selfish. You are not that woman, you are not walking in her shoes, you are not the one who has to decide whether she wants or can support a child or not. You are not God and cannot decide for another viable human being what is the "right" choice. Though there is nothing in the bible that supports your kind of dictatorial extremist position on abortion, you clearly adhere to the Pope's declaration that life begins at conception. I for one am tired of your poorly argued, self-righteous stance that you subject everyone to. You need to grow up (ie get more experience) and recognize that reality is not all black and white. We are not strong vs. weak, selfless vs. selfish. Life would be comforting and easy if things were that way, but it's not. Sometimes things are nuanced and complex, but you don't respond to that. People are either good or bad to you. Right and wrong. Sometimes they are that simple. I cannot ever see how you think forcing a woman to bear a child she did not intend or want would ever be the moral position. Not unless you believe a very narrow minded, rigid religious doctrine that you dare not question. Amber, some of the worst moral behavior has been at the behest of religious institutions (crusades etc). Just b/c the church says it has all the answers doesn't make it true. It is mostly concerned with it's own power.

Hillary B.
Hillary G. B6 years ago

To Val Anderson: What you are advising seems like serious misinformation to me. If it were that simple, no one would need abortions or PlanB. You need to back up your assertion with facts that support it. Please show us evidence that this works. Sounds like unscientific, unhelpful wishful thinking to me. I would advise all young people to g/t Planned Parenthood to get the facts (if it's still functioning in the future!) or an actual OBGYN.

Val Anderson
Valerie A6 years ago

It's too bad more women don't know about how to just "take a bath," something I learned about from a friend when I was about 15. If your period is late and you think there may be a possibility that you've gotten pregnant, all you have to do is run the bath water and pour some Spirits of Ammonia (you can get that at the drugstore) in the water. Just soak in the tub for a while, and within a day or two your period will start again.

Sheri P.
Sheri P7 years ago

wow...some sad stories here...

Amber M.
Amber Beasley7 years ago

well then I'm sorry but those women are dumb. why can't they just go through with it and have the baby and give it up for adoption instead of doing that to themselves? or why not just not have sex? if those women do that then they're doing it to themselves and we can't control their choices. they have options, and if they just choose to be strong instead of weak and selfless instead of selfish then they would choose another one. sorry if that sounds harsh but I'm tired of people saying that abortion should be legal simply because some selfish women are going to do it themselves anyway.

Al F.
Al Baars7 years ago

And this is what the right wing nut jobs don't understand.

When you take away protections for workers, eliminate social programs, and cut education, you end up with a poorer populace which is more likely to terminate a pregnancy for financial reasons.

If you then demonize reproductive health care and Bible thump with 'abstinence only' programs, you're going to end up with more tragic stories like this.

Loo Samantha
Loo sam7 years ago

thanks for sharing.

anna l.
anna L7 years ago

wow... Now imagine how it is in México where abortion is legal in only one of 33 states.
You end up with lots of horror stories and dead women.

Tana Williams
Tana Williams7 years ago

I am pleased to see so many men who support choice and appalled by the ignorance here too.Children are having sex at earlier ages and one reason is the constant bombardment of info concerning sex. Everywhere you turn, there is another dingbat saying that sex is all, if you are normal you must have lots of sex. I have no doubt that many boys and young men are using this as a way of getting girls to have sex. I sure remember as a young teen being told by a boy, that it's natural and if I really loved him.....Today this is all bolstered by the constant promotion of sex and the lessening of the things that are so necessary to a relation, like love, commitment, respect.
And all of you who constanly bleat about Shar'ia, you obviously have no idea what it is.

Manuela C.
Manuela C7 years ago

"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." - I have nothing else to add...