Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly terminating her own pregnancy with medication she ordered online. By the time the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned the feticide conviction in 2016, Patel had been incarcerated for three years.
Patel is one of at least 20 people who was arrested or investigated for a self-induced abortion since 1973.
“We don’t want anybody else to have to suffer that fate,” said Jill Adams, chief strategist of the Self-Induced Abortion (SIA) Legal Team.
The growing hostility to abortion rights could mean an uptick in arrests, and so lawyers with the SIA Legal Team formally launched a free, confidential helpline and website on Tuesday to help anyone who’s criminalized for “self-managing,” or performing an abortion themselves.
“While we know of at least 20 people arrested for self-managing abortion or helping a loved one do so, we suspect the number is far greater than that and we anticipate that the helpline will bring our attention to many more of these cases,” Adams told ThinkProgress.
With the advent of medication abortion and mounting research demonstrating its safety, there’s a fear among reproductive rights/justice advocates that a prison cell might replace the “coat-hanger” motif as more people choose to self-manage.
In the last six months, Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts has sent low-cost medication to roughly 600 people living in the United States who wanted to terminate their pregnancies at home. Residents who’d prefer to have an abortion outside a clinical setting or, for example, just can’t travel 100 miles to the nearest provider now have the option to order a prescription of misoprostol and mifepristone for $95 using the website, Aid Access. (The federal government now wants to shut the website down.)
“The main risks for people who are going to self-manage or use Aid Access are not medical risks,” said Dr. Abigail Aiken, who studies self-managed abortion.
When taken 24 hours apart, misoprostol and mifepristone can effectively and safely terminate a pregnancy up to 10 weeks. Indeed, in one study conducted by Aiken and Gomperts, 95 percent of 1000 women successfully terminated their pregnancy without professional interference using medication they ordered online. Only seven had serious complications and reported receiving blood transfusions, but there were no deaths.
“The risks to people are legal ones,” Aiken told ThinkProgress. That’s why she’s grateful for SIA Legal Team’s new helpline.
Laws in dozens of states across the country could be used to punish patients who self-manage their abortions — albeit, there’s a concerted effort to eliminate these decades-old laws.
While it’s nearly impossible to determine whether someone self-manages or miscarries, patients are usually reported to law enforcement by people they confide in, like medical providers (even though providers aren’t required by law to report suspicion). For instance, police learned about Patel after she went to a Catholic hospital for a severe hemorrhage and her treating OB-GYN, who was affiliated with an anti-abortion group, called her in.
Regardless of how or why someone decides to self-manage, patients who are afraid they’ll be questioned by police or even arrested are being advised to call 844-868-2812 or Signal 707-827-9528. People who call the SIA Legal Team helpline will be able to immediately talk to a non-attorney advocate about their rights. Should they need a lawyer, they’ll eventually be connected to one.
SIA Legal Team lawyers are also available to back up public defenders who know little to nothing about self-managed abortion. Adams suspects a lot of public defenders and criminal defense attorneys have defended people accused of self-managing but didn’t see the through line because they were charged with a drug-related crime or child abuse. She foresees a swell as the anti-abortion movement is further emboldened.
“The makeup of all three branches of the federal government, the culture surrounding abortion, and growing antipathy toward people who have abortions make this helpline more needed and more promising than ever,” said Adams.
“People of color, immigrants, and low income people are most at risk of being arrested or suspected for self-managing their abortions and that is, number one, because of the obstacle to clinic-based care and, number two, because of the structural inequities to health care access.”
A practical support network already exists for marginalized communities who need to have a clinic-based abortion. There are advocacy groups who pay for abortions if patients are uninsured, or even drive and house them if it’s more than a day’s procedure. Given the ongoing barriers to access, a parallel network for self-managed abortion is now forming alongside this.