Natural Liberty: Rediscovering Self-Induced Abortion Methods by Sage-Femme!
When I was phone banking for the No on 4 campaign, we followed a script that I can still more or less recite from memory: “Prop 4 requires parental notification before a teen terminates a pregnancy, which looks good on paper, but actually puts young women in danger. Scared, pregnant teens who can’t talk to their parents may take matters into their own hands – they might seek a back-alley abortion, self-induce, or even consider suicide!” We were told to sound cheerful when we introduced ourselves, but then tone it down while we were talking about sixteen-year-olds maiming themselves. This was serious stuff.
I could recognize the gravity of the situation, but I found that I could never take it quite as seriously as I was supposed to. The idea of giving yourself an abortion was just a total mystery to me. I’d grown up relatively sheltered, and despite spending my adolescence in Orange County, had miraculously gotten to college unimpregnated (thanks, in part, to a boyfriend in a school district with more comprehensive sex ed). When I warned women that their daughters might be self-inducing or going to back alleys, the words were utter abstractions. Sure, I knew that somewhere, women were doing this, but it was impossible to picture.
Not anymore. Natural Liberty, an extensive catalog of self-induced abortion methods published by the Sage-Femme Collective, has cleared that right up. The first half of the book is an overview of the abortion process; it goes over common reasons why a woman might self-induce, what a woman can expect if she’s attempting it, pre- and post-abortion care, and signs of infection and other complications. The second half is an encyclopedia of various methods of self-induced abortion, including medical abortions, a basic surgical technique, herbal abortifacients, massage, homeopathy, yoga, acupuncture, and psychic methods. Each entry in the guide contains the chemicals that act on a woman’s body, the historical use, preparation and dosage, and a chart listing the effectiveness (four stars: highly effective; one star: don’t hold your breath), hormonal and physiological effects, and reported deaths.
Now, let’s be clear: despite the title, this book is NOT intended as an actual guide to terminating your pregnancy. With one or two exceptions – the guide recommends contacting womenonweb.org to obtain a prescription if you don’t have access to a clinic – the authors make it clear that they’re not advocating this stuff, and almost none of these methods seem really viable anyway. Every single herb has a reputed effectiveness of only one or two stars, and over half of them have caused deaths; tansy, for instance, must be simmered in water and sipped throughout the day for up to 5 days, and has been known to cause nausea, vomiting, inflammation of the stomach lining, dilated pupils, weakened and/or rapid pulse, convulsions, and coma. Yoga and acupuncture are less dangerous (and about as reliable), but acupuncture requires the assistance of a trained professional, and the yoga positions that may or may not cause miscarriage are advanced postures – not something a novice could glance at and then bust out in her living room. Any method requires pre- and post-abortion trips to a clinic to check for abnormalities, age the fetus, and confirm termination, which begs the question of why, if you have such extensive access to a reproductive health center, you’re not having the procedure done professionally. In the entire guide, the only two techniques with an effectiveness of 4 stars are menstrual extraction, in which a tube is inserted into the uterus and the contents are removed via a vacuum seal, and medical abortion. And both of those methods have killed women.
So if the overwhelming message throughout the book is don’t try this at home!, why publish it at all? The easy explanation is that, by emphasizing the risks, Sage-Femme! is protecting itself from lawsuits. Sure, that’s probably part of it. But providing access to this information makes a deeper statement about our right to bodily autonomy, especially since American cultures have a deep-seated need to keep women in the dark about what’s going on in our guts. In her memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman, Diane di Prima describes having a nitrous oxide mask slammed onto her face as her first child is crowning, despite her demands to remain conscious during labor; her experience echos that of countless other women who have had body-altering substances forced on them without their knowledge or consent. (I myself once had to fight off twilight anesthesia when a doctor was resetting a broken finger bone.) Anti-choice rhetoric, bolstered by tactics like crisis pregnancy centers and mandatory ultrasounds, emphasize the myth that women who terminate their pregnancies are too naive to know what the word “fetus” actually means. Moralizers love to crow that if we become pregnant, it was our choice to have sex and our responsibility to accept the consequences; funny how that ownership of our bodies disappears the second we seek to understand or alter them. Even if the methods in this book are too dangerous to try, understanding how pregnancy and abortion work helps make women full participants in our reproductive health, not passive recipients of aid.
Knowledge of self-inducing techniques also raises some interesting questions about the nature of prohibitory laws. If, according to anti-choicers, eating a common plant (onion and rosemary are among the abortifacients listed in the guide) or moving in a certain way should be a crime after you’ve had sex, how can an abortion ban ever be enforced without going to ridiculous Ceauşescu-era extremes? How does this reality affect attitudes towards, say, marijuana cultivation and use? Even if you subscribe to the notion that there’s never a good reason to terminate a pregnancy, how far can you take the strict parent mentality before you must admit that prevention, not punishment, is vastly easier to implement?
The book isn’t without its problems. The language is rather dry, which is understandable since it’s essentially a medical text, but doesn’t make for the type of book you’d cuddle up with before bed. Some of the methods, especially psychic abortion, will seem exasperatingly kooky to those who don’t subscribe to alternative medicine, and the authors’ claim that legal abortion reduces crime rates (because unwanted children are more likely to grow up to be criminals) is not only dubious, but racist when you consider the racial breakdown of the US prison population.
With that said, though, I’m glad Sage-Femme! is furthering this discussion. At the very least, next time I’m warning people about the dangers of restricting access to clinical and medical abortion, I’ll have a clearer idea of what exactly I’m talking about.
And I’m sure this goes without saying, but just in case you didn’t hear me the first time – please, please, please, don’t try this at home.