St. Luke's Doctor: DIY Abortions by S.F. Latinas Overhyped in New York Times


Progressive San Francisco may be a card-carrying pro-choice city where abortions are readily accessible. But just because a hipster chick can wear a snarky T-shirt that could very well  get her burned at the stake in more conservative zip codes hasn't erased abortion's taboo within the city's immigrant communities.

As reported in the New York Times earlier this month, an ongoing study indicates that some immigrant Latinas from fiercely anti-abortion cultures will avoid abortion clinics, preferring to end their pregnancies by self-medicating with pills approved to treat ulcers, herbal teas, a molasses-like substance known as malta available in neighborhood bodegas, or even hitting themselves in the stomach. The women can then say they had a miscarriage instead of an abortion.

The study included interviews with largely low-income Latina women at San Francisco health clinics, said Dr. Daniel Grossman, senior associate at the Oakland-based non-profit Ibis Reproductive Health, which partnered with a New York health research organization to interview some 1,200 women in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Grossman is an obstetrician at St. Luke's Hospital in the Mission. 

Grossman says many women interviewed were aware of ways to end a pregnancy without a doctor's help, yet the percentage who'd actually used one of the methods herself is minute. He couldn't get into hard statistics since the data is still being analyzed.  

"It's a very small number," Grossman said. "I think [the New York Times] blew this a little out of proportion and sensationalized it. I think some women do try to end a pregnancy on their own, but I think the vast majority of women, the vast majority of Latinas, and the vast majority of immigrants go to an abortion clinic."

The article included the risks of taking misoprostol (brand name: Cytotec) a drug approved for treating gastric ulcers that has warnings about causing abortion on its label. Grossman says the woman usually haven't gotten it with a prescription from a U.S. doctor, many times having it sent to them from relatives abroad. The Dominican woman featured in the Times article had gotten it straight from a neighborhood pharmacy.

Yet, taking the drug combined with mifepristone, or RU-486, is an FDA-approved method of a medical abortion during the first seven weeks of pregnancy when prescribed by a physician.  

"They emphasized how [misoprostol] was risky and dangerous but there's a lot of research that says this is quite safe," Grossman said. "In Latin America, where they don't have an option to go to a legal abortion clinic, women still die [from botched abortions]. The medical risks have actually decreased since misoprostol has been used .... The important thing is that it's the safest option available in a [Latin American] context where [abortion is] usually very unsafe."

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