Trending in Texas: DIY Abortions

A fascinating article from The Atlantic this month puts readers firmly on the ground in Texas, in middle of what the author calls “ground zero for state’s bitter abortion battle”—the Rio Grande Valley. The implications of Texas’s controversial new abortion regulations, HB2, have begun to play out by forcing clinic closures across the state. The women of the isolated, largely poor Rio Grande Valley currently find themselves with no clinics offering abortion services within 150 miles.

Knowing that denying abortion care does not keep women from seeking abortions, writer Erica Hellerstein explores the growing black market culture of DIY abortion drugs that is taking hold in the region. In particular, women are seeking a pill well-known throughout Latin America and Mexico called miso, short for misoprostol. If taken correctly, the drug is 80-85% successful in safely inducing an abortion during the first trimester.

One problem Hellerstein identifies, however, is that because the drug is sold largely on the black market in the area, many women are unaware of the correct dosages, which can lead to botched abortions and hospitalizations. Hellerstein prowls local flea markets and even crosses by foot into Mexico in search of information about how the pill is sold, bought, and consumed. She discovers that due to police crackdowns, it’s become harder to find the drug in Texas than she thought. But she has no trouble tracking down miso just across the border, and she discovers many internet vendors who claim to offer it, although such vendors are known to sell counterfeit versions.     

Miso, long prescribed as an ulcer medication, is thought to have first been used as an abortion inducer in Brazil—where abortion is illegal except in certain circumstances and considered a mortal sin—in the late 1980s. Its off-label use quickly spread throughout the dominantly Catholic countries of Latin America, where communicating instructions for safely administering the clandestine drug became a problem as well. Secret hotlines developed in many countries to spread accurate information to women in need. 

Hellerstein sees similarities in today’s Texas to the situation in Latin America 20 years ago:

Things are starting to look a lot like the early years of miso in places like Brazil and Chile: The simple guidelines about miso haven't yet made it to women in the state. But eventually, in those countries, the Internet and the democratization of information prevailed. Unless, and until, abortion restrictions change again, Latin America’s DIY-abortion culture might be the future of women in South Texas.

As Texas moves increasingly backwards, the Atlantic piece serves as a reminder that if a woman needs an abortion, she will find a way to get one. And as Hellerstein traces just a few steps of that path, the perils of the journey become chillingly clear.