Restricting access to abortion doesn’t stop abortion; it just forces pregnant people to turn to other methods of ending their pregnancies.
“I came across your instructions on the abortion pill and decided to use it for an at home abortion after finding pills online. I took the pills 2.5 weeks ago and am still cramping and bleeding sometimes mildly sometimes heavily, please I would like some advice on what I can do to help me heal faster.”
Peg Johnston estimates that her abortion clinic receives an email such as this once every month. This one, which arrived 11 May, reads the same as so many of the others. “You can often hear that desperation when you talk to them,” Johnston said. “Women who are pregnant and don’t want to be are desperate. They will do pretty much anything.”
Five years into a wave of anti-abortion legislation that is without historical precedent, Johnston is not surprised. In fact, she is part of a rising chorus of abortion providers and activists who wonder if they are witnessing, as a direct result of those laws, a spike in women who are attempting to take matters into their own hands.
In the south, abortion providers frequently encounter women who have tried taking misoprostol, an abortifacient that is only available in abortion clinics in the US but is available and inexpensive in most Mexican pharmacies. Myths circulate online about the ability of herbal extracts or over-the-counter products, some of which pose a health risk, to cause a miscarriage.
A volunteer, Emily Rooke-Ley, who operates a hotline for minors seeking an abortion in Texas, recently spoke to a teenager who couldn’t pay for her abortion and tried drinking “loads of vitamin C” instead.
There are phone calls about substances that carry warning labels for pregnancy: “‘What if I drank a whole bottle of this-or-that?’” said Sue Postal, who recently closed her clinic in Toledo. Others take more drastic measures, such as the young woman in Postal’s clinic whose boyfriend had punched her in the stomach as hard as he could – at the woman’s insistence.
Until recently, abortion rights activists treated stories like these as harbingers of the future if states continued to erode abortion rights. Thirty-eight states have passed more than 300 new abortion restrictions since 2010, laws that have shuttered dozens of abortion clinics across the south, west and midwest.
But a growing number now reject the idea that these anecdotes represent the worst-case scenarios. And a small body of research has emerged to support them. Among the most eye-catching is a report, released in November, projecting that anywhere from 100,000 to 240,000 women of childbearing age in Texas – the site of the nation’s most bruising abortion fight – have at some point attempted to induce their own abortions.
“These are stories of desperation, not empowerment,” said Sarah Roberts, a University of California at San Francisco researcher who, in studying the effects of abortion clinic closures in the south, has come across a small proportion of women who tried to do something to end their pregnancies. One tried to cause a miscarriage by taking a huge dose of ecstasy. “These are stories of women going into their medicine cabinets and using things that are in there, or stories of women using illegal drugs, in the hopes that it will end their pregnancies.”
The report from the University of Texas can be found here.