Some Worry Underground Abortions Are Still a Reality

Yet Cytotec's contraindication for pregnancy was quickly seized upon in areas where abortion remains illegal, especially in Latin America. Not only is the anti-ulcer medicine legal, but it is relatively cheap compared to the several hundred-dollar price tag of a surgical abortion.

Grossman remembered that a person in Mexico could buy a bottle of misoprostol for $125, although only eight pills (at $5 a pill) are needed to cause an abortion. Often, Grossman said, women used less.

"Sometimes, people talk about this as a passport to the ER," said Grossman. "They take enough so it looks like they're having a miscarriage, and then they have an aspiration procedure."

Although the woman in San Francisco didn't need to feign a miscarriage to legally obtain an abortion, Grossman said other factors motivated her: She didn't know the law, or even how the system worked.

"She talked about how when she first came to the U.S., she came to the pharmacy to get birth control pills and she was told she needed a prescription," said Grossman.

In Mexico, Grossman said, women don't need a prescription to buy birth control in pharmacies, and his patient wasn't sure how to get a prescription. Then, once she was pregnant, the woman was more confused.

"She knew that abortion was legal in the U.S.," Grossman said, "but she thought that is was only for people who are legal residents."

But that case study only gave a "why" and a "how" to one woman. Grossman and his colleagues at Ibis Reproductive Health would like to get a cross-country view of self-induced abortions to see differences.

For example, more than 2,000 miles a way, a woman in a very different situation tried a very different method for different reasons.

Police found evidence that Rhodes, the former college volleyball player, was searching for an alternative to end her pregnancy.

Unlike the women who took the anti-ulcer medication, the 19-year-old turned to the Internet and found "herbal abortion techniques."

Like Cytotec, the use of herbs is no secret. Herbs and plants with abortifacient effects have been found and used for hundreds, if not thousands of years. However, with the Internet, old-fashioned knowledge of the "emmenagogues" -- herbs named with a euphemism meaning to help blood flow -- has resurfaced.

Ancient Knowledge, Now in HTML

"I've seen a real increase in the blogs and the chatter in the herb chat rooms about this lately," said Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, a physician, herbal expert and former midwife.

Low Dog sees more talk about abortion alternatives when abortion issues surface in politics and in election years.

While Low Dog said she has never given women abortifacient herbs for safety reasons, she has seen her share of women seeking these alternatives since she started as a midwife apprentice in New Mexico 25 years ago.

"Women came in a lot asking for herbs to causing a miscarriage," said Low Dog. "I was shocked, actually, how many women came looking for natural abortifacients."

Later, as a physician, Low Dog treated herbal abortions gone wrong. As Susun Weed, another herbal expert, explained extensively in her book "Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year," some common herbs thought to induce an abortion early in pregnancy are basically poison, such as tansy and pennyroyal tea.

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