Some Worry Underground Abortions Are Still a Reality

While many may believe that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that overturned laws restricting abortion put an end to improvised abortions, the medical community worries there will still may be a problem.

Now advocacy groups Gynuity and Ibis Reproductive Health are launching a study in San Francisco, New York and Boston to find out how many women go outside the normal clinic abortions, and why.

Though 38 states have laws mandating that only a physician can perform an abortion, there have been several anecdotal cases of improvised abortions in recent years.

In 2005, a migrant farmworker living in South Carolina was convicted for an unlawful abortion. It was illegal because the woman, Gabriela Flores, performed the abortion by taking several anti-ulcer pills called Cytotec with known abortifacient effects.

In early 2007, an 18-year-old Dominican immigrant living in Massachusetts was also charged with illegally inducing an abortion. She, too, had taken Cytotec, the brand name of misoprostol, before delivering a live 1-pound girl. The girl died four days later, and the teen was arrested.

In a similar case in July, police in Galena Park, Texas, dug up an entire backyard looking for a fetus after a 16-year-old told relatives her mother had forced her to take pills to induce a miscarriage.

And this month, a former volleyball player at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., was arrested in a similar situation, with more serious charges. Teri Rhodes, of Commerce, Mich., pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter after she gave birth to a full-term baby in her dorm room and then smothered it. On her computer, police found Internet searches of "alternative methods of ending pregnancy," "what can kill a fetus" and "herbal abortion techniques."

Normally a Quiet Tale

Despite Roe v. Wade and the Food and Drug Administration's 2000 approval of mifepristone, the so-called abortion pill, some doctors have seen cases that have caused them to worry that the phenomenon of underground abortions is still a reality.

Before coming to Ibis Reproductive Health and St. Luke's Hospital in San Francisco a few years ago, Dr. Daniel Grossman lived and worked in Mexico.

"A few months after I was back, I had a case where I was called to the hospital," said Grossman.

When he got there, he saw a situation eerily similar to what he thought he'd left behind. That day, a 33-year-old immigrant woman came to the emergency room bleeding and pregnant.

"She had been given a misoprostol from her friend in San Francisco," said Grossman. "She got a big work up, and she ended up going to my office and everything was taken care of there."

Misoprostol was approved by the FDA as an anti-ulcer drug to protect people taking high amounts of pain medication. Pfizer, its manufacturer, has opposed such off-label use.

In an e-mail to, Pfizer media representative Shreya Jani said, "Pfizer only promotes the use of its medicines for approved indications. Cytotec is off-patent with at least two generics, and we are not actively marketing the brand."

Jani added, "Pfizer has not studied Cytotec for the purpose of labor induction or for the early termination of pregnancy, nor do we intend to."

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