The XX Factor

Black-Market Abortion Drug Sales Appear To Be Rising

Irish protesters march against deadly restrictions on abortion.

Photo by PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images

The New Republic’s cover headline this month is a topic that pro-choice activists speak about occasionally amongst themselves, but rarely address in public: “The Rise of DIY Abortions.” The reason that it’s not much discussed in public forums is that reproductive health advocates are data-driven people, and one thing that’s nearly impossible to get data on is the prevalence of women quietly buying an ulcer medication named Cytotec from sleazy online dealers and using that to terminate pregnacies at home, far out of the reach of doctors and agencies like the CDC or the Guttmacher Institute that compile statistics on abortions. The writer of the piece, Ada Calhoun, admits that there’s no way to know how common these black-market abortions are, but points out that the rise in websites peddling Cytotec specifically to terminate pregnancy (instead for its on-label use to treat ulcers) makes it hard to deny that this is a growing trend: 

Online, however, these drugs are readily available, often via suspicious-sounding sites that make claims like: “The Affordable Abortion Pill Will Safely, Quickly Terminate Your Undeveloped Fetus In The Privacy Of Your Home, Save You Time And Hundreds Of Dollars. It Is 100% Clinically Safe, Very Effective And The Most Affordable Abortion Pill You Will Get Your Hands On For Now!!!” 

Determining how many American women have had home abortions is exceedingly difficult: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not track illegal abortions. There is no blood test for drugs like Cytotec, and so such an abortion is indistinguishable from a natural miscarriage, even to a doctor. However, the proliferation of online dispensers suggests a rising demand. There are thousands of websites selling Cytotec for as little as $45 to $75 (compared with $300 to $800 for a legal medicated abortion in a clinic). Some claim to offer the harder-to-come-by Mifeprex, but may in fact be peddling Cytotec, or aspirin, or nothing at all. (Possible sources for the drugs include Mexico, where Cytotec is available over the counter, or even the United States, since it’s also prescribed here as an ulcer medication.)

Calhoun tracks the unfortunate story of Jennie McCormack, an impoverished Idaho woman whose inability to afford the expense of paying for an abortion and the travel/hotel costs to endure their mandatory 72-hour wait caused her to spend two months getting her hands on black-market abortion pills. Unfortunately, the time lapse meant she was quite far along in her pregnancy—her fifth, with the previous four resulting in three children and one abortion—which meant that she ended up aborting a pregnancy that was between 18 and 21 weeks along. She was charged with the crime of illegal abortion, but managed to evade jail because of some impressive legal wrangling from her attorney Rick Hearn.

Obviously, McCormack’s entire ordeal could have been avoided if she’d had easy access to the abortion care she needed earlier in her pregnancy. Not that this will change the minds of any anti-choicers, who routinely claim that women should endure pain, misery, and public shunning as the due consequences of their choice to be sexually active in the first place. But for people who foolishly believe that heavily restricting abortion without banning it is some kind of “moderate” compromise, the rise in black-market abortions should be a firm reminder that the basic human right to control your body is not a compromise issue. The result of abortion restrictions is not, contrary to anti-choice propaganda, more glowing mothers who were stalled into changing their minds and having the baby. It simply means more desperate women turning to iffy websites peddling abortion-inducing drugs, and more Jennie McCormacks that turn to that option later in their pregnancies after exhausting their lean options at acquiring legal abortions under medical supervision.