The recent disclosure of the Supreme Court's secretive intention to overturn Roe vs Wade has sent shockwaves throughout the country and activists and advocates from around the world have come together to share resources and information. The mobilization of organizations and individuals has been an inspiration.
As usual, sex workers are the first to step up and, as we have seen repeatedly throughout the pandemic, our community has a unique and unsuprising methodology of meeting needs. Our lived experience, as well as a resilience that is truly mind-boggling, easily lends itself to rapid response. And rapid response is the only thing that matters when someone finds themselves in need of safe and healthy access to information and support regarding an abortion.
The History of Abortion
The first recorded evidence of induced abortion is from the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus in 1550 BCE. Many of the methods employed in early cultures were non-surgical. Physical activities such as strenuous labor, climbing, paddling, weightlifting, or diving were a common technique. During the 1860s a number of states passed anti-abortion laws. Most of these laws were ambiguous, at best. After 1860 stronger anti-abortion laws were passed and as a result, many women began to utilize illegal underground abortion services. Unsurprisingly, half of the women who provided reproductive care prior to the civil war were Black women, some of whom were enslaved; midwives also included Indigenous and white women. Trusted midwives and medical practitioners performed abortions throughout world history.
Laws that prohibit abortion are a relatively recent development. In the early Roman Catholic church, abortion was permitted until 1588, when the pope declared it murder and grounds for excommunication. Only three years later, a new pope repealed that decision and it went unchallenged for the next 300 years until 1869, when, yet another pope declared all abortion murder. Abortion as murder and excommunication for getting an abortion is the current position of the catholic church and has been reaffirmed by catholic leadership repeatedly. Since that time, women have had to cope with the stigma and faith based shame that is inherent in policies based in fear and associated with any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage.
In Colonial America, abortion was not just legal—it was a safe, condoned, and practiced procedure and common enough to appear in the legal and medical records of the period. Official abortion laws did not appear on the books in the United States until 1821, and abortion before the mother could feel the baby kick did not become illegal until the 1860s. Abortion at that time was not a surgical procedure - it was induced with various combinations of herbs and under the direction and supervision of midwives and herbalists from within the local community.
It was “scientific” physicians who began to battle the midwives and this white male dominated group began to assert their authority in attempts to legitimize their profession. Expectedly, these men were particularly racist and discriminatory and feared that lower birth rates amoung the upper class white people would lead to greater ethnic diversity and might eventually dilute their power.
Abortion did not become legal again in the United States until 1973 with the passage of Roe v Wade and that was only after almost 100 years of advocacy on behalf of women and their reproductive rights. Nearly 5000 women died annualy from botched surgical abortions in the 10 years leading up to the passage of Roe vs Wade in what was referred to as “Back Alley Abortions”.
Back Alley Abortion
The term “back alley abortion” was coined by what was called “The Abortion Squad”, a group of anti-abortion zeolots, made up of church officials, volunteers, law enforcemnt and non-profit organizations. It's literally impossible not to see the similarities between the abortion squad and anti trafficking task forces.
The “Back Alley Abortion” list of horror stories is long and a demonstration of exactly what lengths women had to go to in order to end pregnancies. Not only did these unsafe practices result in the death of women, many women each year survive the unsafe abortion itself, but sustain long-term damage or disease from incomplete abortions like infection, sepsis,
Anti-abortion efforts have nothing to do with saving women’s lives or protecting the interests of children. It never did. Today, according to the ACLU, a person is 14 times more likely to die by carrying a pregnancy to term than by having an abortion, and medical evidence has shown for decades that an abortion is as safe as a penicillin shot—and yet abortion is increasingly restricted in states across the country.
The advent of the abortion clinic was a result of the exact same group of men who had formed the American Medical Association in orde to corner the market on abortion. While now it was legal, it was - and still is - regulated and overseen by the scientific physicians who fought so hard to make it illegal.
Just like slavery, anti-abortion efforts are rooted in white supremacy, the exploitation of Black women, and placing women’s bodies in service to men. Just like slavery, maximizing wealth and consolidating power motivated the anti-abortion enterprise. Abortion clinics were - and always have been - a revenue generating enterprise. Abortions are rarely covered by insurance and can cost up to $750 in some cases. Abortion funds for people who desperately need them are rarely fully funded and are difficult to access.
The Future of Abortion
Self managed abortion is nothing new. They are also not at all the same thing as what often springs to mind as a “back alley abortion” and do not involve coat hangers, knitting needles or any other invasive medical procedure.
Medications such as mifepristone, are available with a prescription, but also through telemedicine platforms, and cost about $110. In many cases, some platforms operate on a sliding scale and only ask for a donation that the patient can afford. These platforms remove the barriers of transportation for people in rural areas, cost for people who are poor and send detailed instructions and what a patient can expect in a variety of languages. There are several “chat for support” and hotline services available for people to easily access, that will talk them through the process.
The fight for reproductive rights is ongoing and there is little doubt that access to self managed abortion care is going to come under scrutiny as states become more restrictive about our right to bodily autonomy, abortion access and even contracepton. And, like always, sex workers will be on the front lines.
Sex workers are always on the front lines in every social justice movement. Whether it be racial equity, Harm Reduction, LGBTQIA+ rights, womens rights, domestic violece or sexual assault, the right to vote, mass incarceration, police violence…the list is endless. Someone you love is a sex worker and we are here for this..
Abortion, just like sex work, isn’t going anywhere. Unsafe abortions sometimes occur where abortion is legal, and safe abortions sometimes occur where abortion is illegal. The reverse is also true and safe abortions can occur where they are legal. The most important thing to remember is that - much like syringe exchanges and free condom distribution - the goal is to provide support for the individual and prioritize safety and health.