The New Face of Illegal Abortion

Posted on 8.10.2012 by Lily

AlterNet has a great profile up of Women on Waves, which, if you haven't heard of them, is a bad-ass organization that travels around the world providing safe medication abortion in countries where abortion is illegal or restricted. They accomplish this - legally - by traveling by ship and docking in international waters outside the country in question, and then bringing women who need abortions aboard, where their doctor, founder, and pretty much all-around kick-ass superhero Rebecca Gomperts supervises their medical abortions. Oh yeah, and their sister organization, Women on Web, sends medical abortion pills through the mail. Seriously. Bad. Ass!

According to the article, Women on Waves has been influential enough to inspire various countries to ban misoprostol, which is one of the two main medications used in medical abortion. Unlike mifepristone (the drug formerly known as RU-486, or "the abortion pill"), misoprostol has other uses besides its abortifacient properties. It's primarily approved as an ulcer treatment, and so is widely available in many countries without a prescription for this purpose. Women on Waves' impact has been as much about spreading the information about how to safely access medical abortion as it has been about the actual abortion provision; they now train international women's groups to educate the populace to access and self-administer at-home abortions using misoprostol.

In fact, due to the increased popularity and awareness surrounding medical abortion, the face of illegal abortion has largely changed since the "coat-hanger" days. Which is good, since self-inducing a medical abortion is way, WAY safer than any attempt to manually terminate a pregnancy. (Unless you have an Ipas system and know how to use it, I suppose.)

I've been thinking about medical abortion a lot lately in light of all the recent restrictions on abortion access in the US. In some places, abortion is as good as illegal. I don't know how women in these areas who need abortions are handling it. Probably they're traveling if they can, but according to the AlterNet article, Women on Web's US help desk has seen a surge in calls lately. Which isn't surprising, but I wonder how many of these women - if any - are able to get help from WoW. According to their website, they only help if you live in a country "where access to safe abortion is restricted." Technically, I don't think the US fits the bill, although we all know "access" is relative.

So the upshot of all this is that women in developing countries where abortion is completely criminalized might actually have better, safer access to abortion in some cases than American women:

In many countries where abortion is illegal, women can still purchase Misoprostol from a pharmacy for as little as $1 in Pakistan, for instance, and $12 in Morocco. Gomperts said it might ultimately be easier for women in Africa to terminate their pregnancies than women in Missouri where abortion is technically legal. This is not to say that the struggle for reproductive rights is easier for women outside the U.S., but rather, that in countries with less regulation, side-stepping the law is simpler and safer in this case.

I don't know what illegal abortion would look like in the US today - or what it already looks like. Misoprostol is only available with a prescription. No doubt black market versions exist, but as with all illicit drugs, there's little guarantee of either authenticity or safety. However, I am glad simply for more widespread knowledge and education about these medications. Hopefully, even under illegal abortion, the coat-hanger will fade into obsoletion.