Prescribing Coat Hangers: TX's Extreme Laws Force Women into DIY Abortions

A tiny white six-sided pill called misoprostol has made quite the journey, from Brazil through Latin America and Mexico to the Southern United States, from an ulcer medication to black market DIY abortion pill. Often called "miso" or Cytotec (the drug's name when it was used primarily for ulcers), the little pill grew its popularity outside of hospitals and clinics. Instead, according the fascinating article in The Atlantic, growing through the hush-hush social circles of Brazilian women looking to "bring back" their period.

In Brazil, as in many parts of the world, Catholicism dominates the abortion debate. Like adultery and murder, it was a mortal sin, worthy of damnation to hell and, according to the country’s 1940 Penal Code, a crime against life. Despairing Brazilian women with unwanted pregnancies resorted to drastic and dangerous measures. They listened to old wives tails, ramming sharp objects into their uteruses and guzzling drug cocktails, and visiting clandestine, unsafe abortion clinics. But nothing seemed to reliably work, and all were perilous.

Now, with the rise of anti-abortion measures spreading across America — especially in the big ol' border state of Texas — miso has found its way onto the U.S. black market. 12 of Texas' 40 clinics that once provided abortion services (among other female healthcare measures) have closed due to the passage of the controversial House Bill 2. This was the one Wendy Davis spent 12 hours filibustering, thrusting her into the national spotlight. Among House Bill 2's unnecessary efforts: "The bill bans abortion after 20 weeks, adds restrictions to medication abortions, mandates that abortion providers have hospital-admitting privileges at clinics within 30 miles of where they practice, and requires that abortion clinics comply with ambulatory surgical center requirements by September 2014."

Miso is available over the counter (and here in the United States with a prescription), which makes it ripe for the black market — especially as demand increases. Along the U.S. border with Mexico, there aren't abortion clinics for 150 miles. Some women do not have the resources — or the documentation should they be stopped by immigration road blocks along the highway — to make the trip. The alternatives are not pleasant.

“So undocumented women, what can they do?” she asks, flinging her hands in the air. “They put things in their vagina. I've heard that women are using coat hangers or some are going to Mexico and getting clandestine abortions, where it's dirty, unhygienic.” Felix gulps down a spoonful of broth. “Other women go to the flea markets. There are still places where you can get pills.”

Definitely check out the article from The Atlantic, which includes a search for the drug at a Texas flea market and thrilling chase of its grassroots expansion. Plus, there's plenty to get angry about when old men are making decisions about a woman's body. So while the idea of DIY abortion is truly stomach churning, it's better than the alternative:

According to the World Health Organization, more than 21 million women annually have unsafe abortions worldwide, which account for nearly 13 percent of all maternal deaths. Miso is a much safer alternative. If taken in the correct quantities (four to 12 pills over the course of at least nine hours) in a women’s first trimester, the drug is 80 to 85 percent effective.

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Brandon Perkins
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