(WOMENSENEWS)–Yes, the reproductive sovereignty movement that arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s had a few legal complications. None of them were major, but I have my own personal story to tell on that score.
First, I was arrested for practicing medicine without a license in 1972, based on a complaint from a woman who attended a self-help session in which she observed me inserting yogurt into a woman’s vagina for the treatment of a yeast condition.
The woman I helped was Z Budapest, who went on to become a colorful and well-known witch and fortune-telling figure in the Bay Area feminist community. Z had purchased the yogurt and asked me to insert it. She got on the table, inserted her own speculum and I used a cotton Q-tip to spread the yogurt on the cervix and vaginal walls. The person who complained was an ex-nun. She was there as an adult supervisor of the teenagers who came to the self-help clinic space at the Los Angeles Women’s Center.
The Medical Board and police raided our self-help clinic. I wasn’t there, so I turned myself in the next day and I was bailed out within a few hours. We worked around the clock for six weeks, rallying support from across the country, until the trial on charges of practicing medicine without a license, a misdemeanor carrying a penalty of six months in jail. A policewoman testified that she had visited the women’s center and I had offered to do her abortion. Fortunately, I was able to prove that I was out of town on the date she claimed.
I was acquitted. Our defense was based on the exception to the practicing medicine without a license statute that allowed family members to assist someone to treat themselves.
The foreman of the jury sent me a handwritten note that I still have (somewhere) that said, "Carol, you’re not a downer, you’re an upper!" We called it "the Great Yogurt Conspiracy."
Alarm Bells Ringing
Today there is a DIY push for medication abortions, which could be fine. But in the absence of self-help support groups, alarm bells are ringing in my head.
I believe the idea of illegally supplying women with the drugs Cytotech or mifepristone to abort themselves will have similar problems to those we had decades ago, but probably on a grand scale.
In fact, if a sizeable number of women attempt to end their pregnancy with pills they’ve obtained through someone other than an abortion provider who is close by, I can almost guarantee that they will have the problems we had on a small scale.
Based on my experience both in the reproductive sovereignty movement and at our abortion clinic, many girls and women who face an unwanted pregnancy are still very ignorant of their own bodies, have no support system and panic easily. A certain number are bound to be incorrect about how far along they are in their pregnancy, and attempt to use the medical abortion inappropriately. Then, if the bleeding and cramping is worse than they anticipate, they will go into the emergency room.
We are already seeing this happen. Last September, for example, Jennifer Ann Whalen was sentenced to nine to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to her offense, which was obtaining abortion pills from Europe for her pregnant teenage daughter.
Imagine what it will be like if abortion becomes even more restricted.
I’m not surprised that some overzealous anti-natalists are advocating the underground distribution of these pills without also advocating for a feminist support network, but I am really disappointed in feminists who think this is the way to go.
Plus, the same pro-natalist legislators who are rolling back abortion availability and the same prosecutors who are sending women to jail for having miscarriages will use their powers to either outlaw these pills entirely or control their distribution or create a new class of female criminals.
Surprisingly Few Problems
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, self-help menstrual extraction groups had surprisingly few problems over the years, even though abortion was not yet legal.
This is partly because the groups were often friendship-based. Menstrual extraction, as done by a group of minimally-trained women using a handheld device that is designed to easily suction out the contents of the uterus before eight weeks of pregnancy, is also safe and has very few complications. These menstrual extraction groups were springing up until abortion was legalized. Some stayed together for years, but the only new ones that started up were in countries where abortion was still illegal.
In the case of menstrual extraction, the chief complication is not getting all of the uterine contents out. With an eye on that, the group keeps in close touch with the woman for the first week, and if there are any indications that there might be retained tissue (such as any elevation of temperature, cramping), we get together and re-aspirate. This solves the problem.
The case of an aggrieved woman suing for harm that she attributed to menstrual extraction or other female-controlled health care has not occurred to my knowledge.
As an attorney, I would not expect to see a rash of lawsuits tied to the kinds of self-help abortion groups we ran, although if they become popular, it’s bound to happen eventually. Mainly, attorneys don’t usually take personal injury cases on contingency unless there are significant damages and the defendant has insurance. I would be surprised if many cases actually got to court.
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