Set aside arguments of morality or religion and one thing quickly becomes clear about the abortion debate: like it or not, women are having them. When abortions are legal and accessible, they are often performed in a medical clinic or hospital, or with a doctor's supervision in the case of a medication abortion. But increasing restrictions on reproductive rights in the United States has meant that fewer women can receive this kind of medical assistance when looking to terminate their pregnancies, so now advocates are teaching women to safely self-induce abortions at home.
That may sound jarring, but the truth is that, while lawmakers may like to think that restricting abortions and defunding Planned Parenthood will mean that abortions will stop happening, it really just means that a growing number of women are finding themselves left to feel as though they have no other choice but to take matters into their own hands. As a result, Netherlands-based organization Women Help Women launched a website this week to provide assistance for women early in pregnancy who have obtained misoprostol and mifepristone, the drugs that make up "the abortion pill," and who intend on self-managing their abortions, according to The Washington Post. Although the site does not assist women with actually acquiring the medication, it does allow women to send a secure message to a trained counselor, who can then respond to provide "evidence-based answers" and guidance for its safe use.
Women Help Women has called this service Self-managed Abortion: Safe and Supported, or SASS, and it can be accessed at Abortionpillinfo.org. In an interview with Cosmopolitan ahead of the website's launch, Abortion Access Project founding director and Women Help Women consultant Susan Yanow, explained that the project was designed to offer women accurate information about medication abortions to make it safer for anyone who plans to use misoprostol and mifepristone without being under the care of a medical professional. And since, in some states, it is actually illegal to self-induce an abortion, SASS also gives women information that can help protect themselves from a legal perspective, too. As Yanow explained,
The goal is to give accurate medical information according to the [World Health Organization] protocols, to make sure women understand the best way to use the medicines, if they have it, for effectiveness but also for safety ... [If] a woman does have a complication, she will be encouraged to seek medical care, but she will also be given the information that miscarriage happens with 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies, and that miscarriages look the same as medication abortions and are treated the same way. So she will absolutely be confident that medical practitioners will be able to treat any symptoms she has but she doesn’t have to say why she’s bleeding.
According to The Guttmacher Institute, mifepristone was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in September 2000 for use in non-surgical abortions. Medical abortions can occur in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy — the safest time to have an abortion anyway — and the abortion pill is considered very low-risk and effective when used correctly. According to Planned Parenthood, the abortion pill poses no long-term risk to fertility or a woman's health, and complications from the medication are rare. Yet taking the abortion pill without medical guidance can be potentially dangerous, which is why the SASS initiative is so important.
While United States law prevents Women Help Women from providing the abortion pill to American women like it does it some other countries (the organization also ships birth control pills, the morning after pill, and condoms), the fact that women in the United States are already taking the risk of using the abortion pill by themselves means that SASS can at least help make that experience safer. In 2015, researchers at the University of Texas found that as many as 100,000 women in Texas have likely had self-induced abortions, thanks in part to the fact that the state is home to some of the strictest abortion laws in the United States. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Google search results have shown that the demand for self-induced abortion information in the United States is not only strong, but that it's highest in areas where abortion laws are the most restrictive.
According to The New York Times, in 2015 there were more than 700,000 Google searches about self-induced abortion methods in the United States, with southern states yielding higher numbers of searches than elsewhere in the country. About 160,000 of those searches involved asking how to get abortion pills (e.g. “buy abortion pills online”), while about 1,300 searches included the exact phrase “how to do a coat hanger abortion." Mississippi ranked highest for the most self-induced abortion Google searches — perhaps unsurprising, given that there is only one abortion clinic left open in the entire state — and almost all the other states with high search results are also those with the most restrictions against legal abortion.
There's no question that a website designed specifically to assist women with their possibly-illegal, at-home abortions is something that is going to anger a lot of people. But given that it is often the same people that are in favor of the kinds of restrictive laws that lead to an increase in unsafe abortions to begin with, perhaps it's time to reconsider what the fight against reproductive rights is really leading to.
It's one thing to find the idea of abortion offensive or wrong, but when those beliefs become law, it means that countless women are left searching the internet for ways to end their pregnancies that could be incredibly dangerous (after all, even safe medications can be extremely risky when purchased online and taken alone in your bedroom). It might be awful to think that these self-induced abortions are happening, but what seems much, much worse is knowing that they could easily be safely taking place in a doctor's office or medical clinic if only the laws were more allowing.