I am old enough to remember what are often called "back-alley" abortions.
My suite mate in college died in a pool of blood from one such procedure, performed by an un-trained medical student. Back in those days (I was attending an historically black college with strict rules mandating "morality" for young women) if a female student got pregnant, she was expelled from school. No disciplinary procedures ensued for her impregnator. This particular tragedy took place in 1965.
I lived in an all girls dormitory. Girls were locked in after 7:30 PM. Visits from a male student to the dorm were assiduously monitored. A "young gentleman caller" was allowed to sit and talk with you in a visiting room, overseen by a "House Mother", who had a yardstick, which she would place between you and your male visitor, to ensure you didn't sit too close, even under her watchful eye. This was to "prevent" the "young ladies" from the possible "sin" of pre-marital sex. In spite of all the rules and restrictions, each semester, girls got pregnant and were sent home in "shame". No such action was taken against the boys.
Among the young women, most woefully ignorant about birth-control, or even the use of condoms, there was a network of whispers. Advice was passed from upper-class women to entering freshman about what to do if your menstrual period was late and how to "bring down your period". The word abortion was never used. One whisper stuck in my head. "go to the pharmacy off-campus and buy a bottle of Humphreys 11, take the pills, drink a bottle of gin, and for good measure throw yourself down a flight of stairs". Gin and Humphreys 11 became the cocktail of choice for many that year.
I thought of all of this as I watched the latest news reports on the assassination of Dr. Tiller, and the mostly ill-informed spoutings of mostly male news analysts about abortion, pros and cons (with the exception of Rachel Maddow who has been doing a great job on this issue)
Curious, I decided to google "Humphreys 11" and other spellings (Humphries etc) wondering if the pills still existed, and if anyone was using them today. Least you dismiss this as something from a time long ago and far away, here are some of the things I found.
Here are the pills:
HUMPHREYS Symptoms of Delayed Menses 11 - 32 Tablets
Vitamins & Nutrition Type: Homeopathics - Formula: Tablets
Original Formula 100% All Natural Lactose Free Aspirin Free Safe & effective Homeopathic Natural menstrual symptom remedy Not tested on animals Since 1854, our remedy has been formulated using natural ingredients to gently stimulate your body to return to it's natural state of health. Uses: temporarily relieves symptoms associated with delayed menses, such as cramps, backache, anxiety, mood changes, nervous tension, irritability, headache & bloating.
From an ACLU pamphlet:
In 1990, clinic counselors in Louisiana received calls from pregnant young women who had tried to self-abort by throwing themselves down flights of stairs or taking dangerous drugs. In several cases, teenagers had ingested quinine or black or blue cohash, an herb that causes life-threatening cramping and bleeding. Other young women took Humphries 11, a drug designed to soften the cervix before labor, believing that it would cause them to abort. Contrary to the rumors these teenagers had heard, however, Humphries 11 does not induce abortion -- it causes the cervix to soften. When the young women saw doctors to obtain medical abortions, their cervixes had become so soft that they tore severely during the procedure
Humphreys 11 was still alive and well and being injested in 1990.
Another quick search brought up numerous "queries" to websites like Yahoo answers, and Wiki answers, with numerous inquiries about "how to bring down a period".
Herbal websites like one called Sharing our Wisdom From the Womb reference it, along with a host of other stories posted by women attempting to use herbs to abort. Though the site has a warning statement:
These stories are posted here for educational purposes only, they are not guides for herbal abortion. Each of these women have read the information on the website and in other sources, they have done their homework and research and have made an informed decision. They have done what they though best for them. Some were successful, while others were not. There is no guarantee that these herbs will work for you. And if they do not it is extremely important to follow up with a clinical abortion. Here you will find more stories of success, than failure, but let me assure you that many women who try to induce miscarriage with herbs find that it did not work for them. After ending their pregnancies with a clinical abortion, often they do not have the enthusiasm to write about their experience in detail, opting instead to put the experience in the past.
Do not use any one's experience for a guide to end your pregnancy (And I mean it!) They are for informational and educational purposes only. These personal experiences are by people just like you who have limited knowledge of herbs. They have not included (nor do I expect them to) information about the herbs which you need to know before deciding to use them, information about side effects, concerns and contradictions, not to mention the doses they used may not have been appropriate or safe, and even if they were successful, it does not mean the dosage they used would be appropriate or safe for you to use. You will find this important information in other sections, in fact it is very important that you do not use these herbs without checking through those sections first.
frankly this information is dangerous, because "herbs" touted as "natural" can often be deadly.
You might ask, why is all of this still out there, when we still have legal abortions? Much of the debate around abortion has centered on preserving Roe vs Wade, the pro-choice versus the "pro-life" (anti-abortion debate. Much less of it centers on the increasingly difficult access to legal abortions of any kind, from the first missed period onward, for girls in their teens, poor women and women of color.
One of the best articles available on the net on this issue, other than those provided by Kaiser, is on the website of Catholics for Choice.
Kaiser's fact sheet should be required reading on this issue.
Availability of and Access to Abortion Services
• 1,787 facilities provided abortions in 2005 in the U.S., a 2% decline from the year 2000.30
• 87% of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, and 35% of women of reproductive age (15–44) live in these counties.31 Women in the Midwest and South are more likely to live in a county without a provider (50% and 47%, respectively) than women in the Northeast and West (17% and 15%, respectively).
But I'd like to suggest that you read the Catholics for Choice article as well. Entitled The Economics of Abortion Access in the US Restrictions on Government Funding For Abortion is the Post-Roe Battleground which opens:
Sarah is a 31-year-old Alaskan mother who works full time, making $1,000 a month. She has no health insurance. When she was 15 weeks pregnant and unable to get an abortion in Alaska (where there are only three abortion providers and none perform abortions after 14 weeks), she had to use her rent money to fly to Washington state to get one.
In 2005, more than three decades after the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, there are thousands of "Sarahs" each year - women of all ages, races and ethnicities, religions, women in prison, in the military, women who are single and married. The only thing these women have in common is that they cannot afford to pay for the abortions they need and want. This "Sarah" was one of the fortunate women who, with financial assistance from grassroots abortion funds and a friend who provided a place to stay, was able to overcome the barriers and obtain an abortion. Too many others in her situation are not as fortunate. While this network of abortion funds helps thousands of women each year, it cannot meet the enormous need of all the women like Sarah.
This problem is getting worse - even though abortion rates are dropping, they continue to rise for poor and low-income women. Abortions are economically out of reach for so many women - primarily because of restrictive laws and policies. In order to more fully understand the financial barriers to abortion access, we need to examine the restrictions placed on abortion funding, the cost of abortion and the history of advocacy for abortion funding.
The article goes on to discuss the erosion of funding during the Clinton years, the impact of the right wing during the "Gingrich revolution" in 1994, and the intensification of the attacks on funding and access under GWB.
For me the most important section discusses the burden imposed on the poor.
The Burden of Funding Restrictions
Six million women of childbearing age depend on Medicaid for their healthcare. These are the most economically vulnerable women in our society – the poor, the young and, disproportionately, women of color. They bear the brunt of restrictive legislation such as the Hyde Amendment. Further, all women who rely on the federal government for their health care are affected. This includes Native American women who use the Indian Health Service, women in the military and Peace Corps and women in federal prisons. For these women, Hyde has been devastating.Many women cannot obtain abortions at all—between 18 and 35 percent of Medicaid-eligible women who would have had abortions carry their pregnancies to term. Even those who succeed in getting an abortion often do so at great personal cost—borrowing money, postponing bills or using money needed for food and other basic necessities. Women without economic resources also have later abortions as they struggle to find the funding. Young women also tend to have later abortions. In these cases,women end up having to pay more for their abortions.
The reproductive rights of poor women, young women and women of color have been systematically trampled on by all of the barriers to abortion access imposed by opponents of abortion. Poor women and women of color are more likely to have an abortion than women with economic resources. Denied funding for abortions, these women also face punitive policies should they wish to become mothers or to have more children while on public assistance. "The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act" (the 1996 "welfare reform"law) contains many provisions constraining the reproductive options for poor women. This includes welfare caps that prohibit increased payments to women who have another child while on public assistance, "illegitimacy bonuses" which give cash to states that lower the rate of out-of-wedlock births while keeping the abortion rate down and denying immigrants health care for five years. The attacks from conservatives demonstrate their understanding that abortion rights and mothering rights are two sides of the same reproductive freedom coin. For example, the federal Medicaid program pays about 90 percent of the cost of a sterilization, thus making it the more economically viable option for a poor woman who does not want to have more children. Denying both aspects of reproductive control to poor women is a matter of racial and class discrimination as well as gender inequity.
Opponents of abortion have targeted public funding of abortion, both in order to curtail access immediately and as part of their efforts to recriminalize abortion. They have been able to use the battles over funding as moral referenda on abortion itself, thus building support for more restrictions and eventually overturning Roe . Consider Henry Hyde’s remarks in the congressional debate over the Hyde Amendment: "there are those of us who believe it is to the everlasting shame of this country that in 1973 approximately 800,000 legal abortions were performed in this country.... We who seek to protect that most defenseless and innocent of human lives—the unborn— seek to inhibit the use of Federal funds to pay for and thus encourage abortion."
The author, Marlene Gerber Fried
is a professor at Hampshire College, director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program, and founding president of the National Network of Abortion Funds. She recently co-authored Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice and co-authored the section on abortion for the recently updated Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era.
I would like to see this article sent to every pundit who is now weighing in on the tubes about "abortion". (I actually prefer to talk about reproductive health and rights to same, which is imho a better framing of the issue.) Don't know if most of them do any actual research, but there is hope that some are literate. Please pass it on to your friends and co-workers.
I teach women's studies at an upstate NY college. Each semester, in my introduction to women's studies class section I ask students if they know what a "back alley abortion" was (and is). To my surprise each year the answer is no, with few exceptions. But upon probing, many of the young women have had discussions with friends about late periods, and worries after unsafe sex including "Coca-Cola" douches, and other old-wives tales. Others quietly discuss having had an abortion, and why. Most were young women whose families could afford to pay for the procedure. Others from less fortunate economic situations did not have that opportunity.
**Update** Some links where you can donate to support reproductive rights, funding, and legislative efforts:
National Network of Abortion Funds
NARAL Pro-Choice America
Medical Students for Choice
Abortion Access Project
Cross-posted at The Motley Moose