A reproductive justice group is taking a radical step to protect abortion access: a first-of-its-kind legal defense fund to help people who are facing criminal probes for inducing their own abortions.
If/When/How announced Wednesday that it’s launching the Repro Legal Defense Fund, an initiative that will pay for the legal costs of people who need to defend themselves for having, or helping others have, what’s known as a “self-managed abortion.” Although only five states explicitly ban self-managed abortions, experts told VICE News that if law enforcement wants to find a way to go after people for the practice, they can usually find a statute that’s pliable enough to do it.
Abortion rights advocates also expect self-managed abortion to only become more ubiquitous in the coming years, especially if Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide, falls apart. Last month, the majority-conservative Supreme Court agreed to hear an abortion case out of Mississippi—a move that threatens to reduce the landmark ruling to ruins.
“There have been criminal investigations of people in more than 20 states. That includes California and New York and other ‘blue’ states,” said If/When/How Executive Director Jill Adams.
“It happens in big cities. It happens in rural towns. Unfortunately, because there’s so much misinformation about the laws regarding abortion and people’s rights, and there’s so much antipathy—that gets manipulated by overzealous prosecutors and by police who try to create crimes where none exists.”
“Abortion is not a crime,” Adams added. “We have a constitutionally protected right to abortion that encompasses self-managed care. These laws, in the five states—those are arguably unconstitutional.”
With $2 million in funds, the Repro Legal Defense Fund intends to defray the costs of expenses like bail, expert witnesses, court fees, and attorney fees for people who are being criminalized for self-managing their abortion. “Not letting access to a robust defense be marred by a lack of financial ability is really the goal,” said Rafa Kidvai, If/When/How’s legal defense fund director.
No one knows just how many people have been prosecuted for self-managing their own abortions or helping others do so. A 2017 If/When/How report found that, since 1973, there had been at least 21 arrests for suspected self-induced abortions. These arrests can have life-shattering consequences: In 2013, an Indiana woman named Purvi Patel was accused of inducing her own abortion and later convicted of felony child neglect and feticide. She was sentenced to decades behind bars. Although an appeals court ultimately found that Indiana’s feticide law wasn’t intended to be wielded against women seeking their own abortions, the entire ordeal took up more than three years of Patel’s life.
If/When/How is now embarking on a more comprehensive study that seeks to find out just how many people have been criminalized for self-managed abortion. A pilot study in three states—Arizona, New York, and Nevada—has so far uncovered dozens of such cases.
Although people like to rage about the specter of the “coat-hanger abortion,” the risks for people who want to self-manage their abortion are primarily legal, rather than medical, thanks to the advent of abortion-inducing pills. These pills are widely regarded as safe to use at home; the World Health Organization even recommends a regimen for self-inducing an abortion using a drug called misoprostol. (The Repro Legal Defense Fund is open to providing aid to anyone who self-manages, regardless of the method they use.)
The pills are also increasingly easy to obtain, thanks to groups like Aid Access, an organization that ships abortion-inducing pills across the United States. At the same time, states are passing a record-breaking number of restrictions on abortion clinics. Multiple studies have indicated that lack of access to in-clinic abortion is a key reason motivating people who want to self-manage instead.
Between March 2018 and March 2020, more than 57,000 people in all 50 states asked Aid Access for help obtaining abortion-inducing pills, according to a study led by a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and published last month. More than 70 percent of people said that they couldn’t afford an in-clinic abortion, while 40 percent said that “clinic distance” made them lean towards self-managing their own abortion.
“That shows us that those folks are already in that place where abortion is a legal right, but it’s a right on paper only,” the lead researcher, University of Texas at Austin associate professor Abigail Aiken, told VICE News last month. “If Roe v. Wade is overturned or diminished, I think that we will find more people in that situation. So I think we could expect self-managed abortions to increase.”