Are DIY Abortions More Common Than We Think?

A Dutch activist fights to keep at-home abortion instructions on her Facebook profile while the NY District Attorney drops its case against a woman charged with first-degree self-abortion

It’s no secret that access to safe legal abortions continues to be threatened. Look no further than Ohio’s proposed heartbeat bill for evidence. But when we read headlines like “Facebook Sparks Controversy By Removing Home Abortion Instructions” and “DA Drops Self-Abortion Case Vs. NYC Woman,” the news becomes not only upsetting but rather alarming. As access to abortion services becomes more restricted across the country, will we be seeing more DIY abortions?

Controversy began on the internet, where Dutch doctor and activist Rebecca Gomperts is director of a non-profit, called Women on Waves, that provides abortions for women in countries where it’s illegal – by offering the procedure aboard a ship. On December 30, Facebook removed Gomperts' profile picture because it was a snapshot of instructions to perform a self-abortion. The how-to suggests using Misoprostol, a drug prescribed to people taking certain pain or arthritis medication to prevent side effects, namely ulcers. After Gomperts argued the right to freedom of information and incited protests and a Facebook uprising of supporters who reposted the story and photo, Facebook issued an apology and allowed Gomperts to use the picture.

Meanwhile, in New York, prosecutors made headlines by dropping charges against a Washington Heights, NY woman who dumped her fetus in the trash after consuming an herbal tea that is believed to induce labor. The tea, heirba de ruda (ruda for shot), costs $3 and is commonly prescribed by priestesses operating apothecaries easily found in Washington Heights and Inwood, both lower-income neighborhoods in New York City. Both ruda and a pill called Humphrey’s #11 are common homeopathic solutions to unwanted pregnancy – reports that the latter has been on back order at Washington Heights pharmacies in recent weeks. The 20-year-old woman was charged with first-degree self-abortion last month but was set free today with no elaboration from prosecutors. The misdemeanor charge, which has been seldom used in New York, applies to pregnancy terminations exceeding six months of gestation.

While self-abortion is more common in places where abortion is illegal, something is very wrong when women skip professional medical treatment that is available and resort to putting themselves in danger through self-medication. Perhaps women are deterred from seeking professional help because of the stigma that still revolves around abortion. Or because of the price tag.

“Women who are poor -- who come from a country where abortion is illegal, who carry the stigma, who don’t know what services are available to them here -- wind up with these sad circumstances. That women would reach such desperation that they would take this option is devastating," explained Janet Crepps, Deputy Director in the US Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“A poor adolescent in Mississippi can find herself in the same situation because of all the rules – there’s a 24-hour waiting period, two-parent consent rule, limited facilities that can perform the function, no Medicaid coverage. The state contributes hurdle after hurdle that allow for a stigma that it’s something to be ashamed of and keep a secret. People make assumptions about these women and don’t try to understand their situations. You wouldn’t stand for this in any other kind of healthcare,” said Crepps.

We know it’s not safe to take medication that hasn’t been prescribed to us. And we know not to rely on WebMD to self-diagnose our ailments. But it’s a sad sign of the times when we will do whatever it takes to get out of a desperate situation -- including resort to Facebook.

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