Last year, Michelle Frances Roberts was indicted on felony charges of self-abortion. Prosecutors accused the Virginia woman of self-terminating her pregnancy in her third trimester, which, according to a 1950 law, is illegal. She told investigators, however, that she gave birth to a baby boy, but he died afterward. The fetus’ remains were discovered in the backyard.
Roberts is currently awaiting a trial, and advocates say the results could have repercussions for any woman who has a miscarriage or stillbirth.
But according to a new position statement released yesterday from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the premier membership organization for practitioners in reproductive health, pregnancy, and childbirth, no woman should go to jail for attempting to end her own pregnancy.
Despite the onslaught of abortion restrictions we’ve seen come down in recent years from lawmakers across the country, abortion in the US is legal up to a certain point. But many states still criminalize the procedure if it’s not conducted in a medical setting and/or by a licensed medical provider. “In some cases,” the association states, “women have been prosecuted under laws that explicitly criminalize self-abortion or that criminalize harm to the fetus, while in other cases, women have faced charges related to the disposal of pregnancy tissue or because they obtained, or helped someone else obtain, abortion-inducing medication.”
As medication abortion becomes more accessible—a recent study found that it’s feasible to obtain effective abortion pills online—and more lawmakers make abortion harder to access, ACOG is concerned that prosecuting women who self-induce abortions “may result in negative health outcomes” if they don’t feel comfortable enough to seek potentially necessary care.
It’s the first time ACOG has come out against the criminalization of self-induced abortion. “The reasons why women attempt to self-induce an abortion are varied and include barriers to accessing clinic-based care, including cost, distance to the facility, and lack of knowledge of where and how to access care, as well as a preference for self-care,” ACOG notes. “Due to the growing restrictions on abortion access and the closure of facilities providing this service, self-induced abortion attempts may become more common.”
In fact, a 2015 study found that in Texas, a state known for its onerous barriers to abortion services, at least 100,000 women reported that they tried to end a pregnancy on their own.. The New York Times also also found that there were more than 700,000 searches on Google by people looking into self-induced abortions in 2015. The exact phrase, “how to have a miscarriage,” was typed in 119,000 times.
Daniel Grossman, the physician who spearheaded that study and helped write the ACOG’s position statement, tells Broadly that no one incident spurred the association to clarify their stance on self-induced abortion. “Instead, it was the growing body of research documenting that self-induced abortion is happening in the US, as well as the cases of women being prosecuted for allegedly doing this that continue to occur,” he says. “ACOG recognized that this was an important area that needed to be addressed—since it was clearly not going away."
In the coming months, advocates expect restrictive measures to continue to come down from lawmakers, especially considering the uptick in 2017 of anti-abortion legislation across the country. As a result, these restrictions could potentially lead to more women deciding to terminate on their own. Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed into law a ban on abortion after a Down Syndrome diagnosis.
If lawmakers are really concerned about lowering rates of abortion, Grossman continues, they should “instead focus their efforts on proven methods of success, including increasing access to routine preventive care, particularly comprehensive contraceptive choices, as well as to early medication abortion.”
Jill E. Adams is a chief strategist with the Self-induced Abortion (SIA) Legal Team, whose mission is to work toward a future in which everyone has the legal and actual right to choose the setting, method, companion, and timing of the abortion that's right for them. In an op-ed for The Hill published today, she points out that seven states have laws on the books that directly criminalize self-induced abortion, 11 have fetal harm laws that can be twisted to punish pregnant people, and 15 have criminal abortion statutes that have been used to prosecute those who end their own pregnancies.
Adams tells Broadly that she applauds ACOG’s statement, noting that it “signals a surge in the rising nationwide demand to end the criminalization of self-induced abortion.”
“These physicians know that while abortion is safe,” Adams continues, “the true danger to women's health stems from the threat of arrest, imprisonment, or deportation driven by politically motivated lawmakers and prosecutors."