As Americans face the reality that the Supreme Court could now overturn the federally-protected right to abortion, advocates have launched a website and helpline to offer legal information and attorney referrals to people who induce their own abortion.
The SIA Legal Team Helpline debuted Tuesday and offers three confidential ways to contact its experts: phone, the messaging app Signal, and the form service Formstack. Communication via Signal and Formstack is encrypted.
“People who self-manage their abortions, and those who assist them, can risk unjust arrest, prosecution, and jail time,” said Jill E. Adams, founder and strategy director of the SIA Legal Team, an organization that works to change laws, argue cases, and provide legal information and referrals in support of people who’ve independently ended their pregnancies. “The idea is if people know their legal rights, they can understand factors that have led to arrests and prosecution, and keep themselves safe.”
While it’s not clear how frequently people seek to end a pregnancy on their own, research shows that it does happen. In one 2012 survey conducted in Texas, a state with laws that restrict abortion access, 7 percent of abortion patients said they’d attempted to end their pregnancy on their own. A separate survey of internet users who Googled search terms related to self-abortion last year found that nearly three-quarters of respondents were pregnant and didn’t want to be. Forty-one percent of the participants were minors.
Earlier this year, a website called Aid Access launched to provide U.S. residents with abortion medication by mail, after customers complete a digital consultation with a medical professional. The service is available to women and trans men who are healthy and fewer than 9 weeks pregnant. While the founder of Aid Access, a physician who created a similar site based in Europe called Women on Web, told the Atlantic that the Food and Drug Administration allows people to import medicine for personal use, the government agency told the outlet that abortion medication is not legally available online.
While politicians debate what a “Post-Roe” America might look like, many are already living it. States with multiple abortion restrictions place abortion out of reach, particularly for women struggling to make ends meet. Read more about our new study: https://t.co/wxzd91Fm4k pic.twitter.com/S4BUesPBEn
— ANSIRH (@ANSIRH) October 12, 2018
Adams says it’s impossible to tell yet whether the recent launch of Aid Access will increase outreach to the SIA Legal Team Helpline. Members of the SIA Legal Team staff have been helping women accused of illegally ending their pregnancies since 2013. Seven states have laws that explicitly make self-managed abortion illegal while others have arrested and prosecuted women based on laws against harm to a fetus or laws that criminalize abortion and are misapplied to people who independently end a pregnancy. Low-income women, immigrants, and women of color are most frequently targeted by law enforcement, says Adams.
Many investigations begin when a medical professional who opposes abortion suspects a patient of having induced one, or when they mistakenly think they’re required by law to report their suspicions. Adams says overzealous prosecutors often lobby for or pursue criminal charges, but may ultimately drop them due to a lack of evidence. The helpline, she says, is designed to provide support to callers who may feel terrified about what to expect next.
“Our hope is that helpline callers will feel respected, supported, and informed,” says Adams.
The line is not, however, a counseling or advice service for people trying to make a decision about whether to self-manage their abortion.
“Our hope is that helpline callers will feel respected, supported, and informed.”
Abigail R.A. Aiken, assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, says people choose self-managed abortions for various reasons. Her recent research, based on in-depth interviews with 32 people who sought abortion medication online, found that participants couldn’t access an abortion clinic because of logistical challenges or restrictive laws, or preferred to end their pregnancy independently for personal reasons, including feeling judged or stigmatized.
Aiken says obtaining medication for abortion online and using it without the assistance of a physician is as effective as receiving abortion care from a medical professional. A study published last year in BMJ looked at outcomes amongst women in Ireland and Northern Ireland who used Women on Web to obtain abortion medication. It found that 95 percent of them used the medication to complete their abortion without needing surgical intervention, a rate similar to outcomes for women who receive an abortion in a clinic.
Given the looming possibility that abortion will become increasingly harder to access, or even illegal, in the U.S. in the next few years, Aiken argues there’s a public health justification for making self-managed abortion as safe as possible.
“I think that we are right to worry about that world, the post-Roe world people are talking about,” says Aiken. “We already have a sense of what it will look like from folks in states like Texas, where the ability to fulfill the right to an abortion is out of reach … We have folks already experiencing this world. Self-management is certainly a response to that in so many ways.”