Roe at 40: Blindfolds & Border Pharmacists

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which established the right, under the penumbra of privacy, for women to obtain abortions.

My mom attended a women’s college in Virginia in the first half of the 60s. She told me the story of friends driving a classmate to a diner in the Washington, DC suburbs, and leaving her there. As the drivers, their instructions were to drop off the friend, then return 8 hours later to pick her up. No number to call if anything happened, if no one showed up 8 hours later.

The friend who needed an abortion had scarier instructions. She was to wait at the diner for the contact to meet her. She’d be taken by that person, by car, blindfolded, to a secure, undisclosed location, where someone who claimed to be a doctor would perform the abortion. Then, blindfolded again, she would be returned to the diner.

I was telling someone that story, and she said wow, I didn’t know your mom did that for someone else. She gave me the money for my abortion, but didn’t drive me, and I met someone in a Howard Johnson’s, and it was in Baltimore. They blindfolded me, and I have no idea where we drove or for how long. I just knew that my father would not have understood that I had been raped, and I had to do something.

Just think about what it would feel like to get medical care by being dropped off at a diner, picked up by a stranger, and driven to a second destination while wearing a blindfold to get medical care—a procedure that exposed the most vulnerable part of your body to someone who said trust me, I’m a doctor—in a country house, not even sure what state you are in and with no way for anyone to find you. An 8-hour ordeal of a doctor’s appointment, not including travel time to and from the diner.

It sounds like the plot from the first ten minutes of any number of gruesome crime shows. It does not sound like how anyone should get medical care. And yet, these friends of my mom, these were extremely lucky women, women who could afford some of “the best” abortion care available at the time.

When people say we can’t go back, that’s what it means.

What is truly scary is that, because of the restrictions on access to abortion services, in some places, we already have gone back.

Along the US-Mexico border, women are going to pharmacies to get drugs they’ve heard will help them abort unwanted pregnancies. While the pharmacists are happy to profit from the sale of the drugs, they are unwilling (which makes any question about their qualifications moot, but let’s add often unqualified or, at best, too confused) to provide guidance on how to use them safely or effectively:

In July, at one of the many pharmacies lining the main street in Nuevo Progreso, a town across the border from Weslaco, Jose Alfredo Acosta was selling Cytotec for $153 per box. The package contained 28 pills, each about 200 micrograms. The informational insert did not include directions for self-induced abortion, but Acosta said he knew that was why many women bought the medication.

“If I see that a girl is too young, I won’t sell it,” he said, citing stories he had heard of girls hemorrhaging after using the pills. “I try my best to explain the consequences, but there’s only so much I can do.”

Like many Progreso pharmacy workers, Acosta does not hold a pharmacy degree or a license but is allowed under Mexican law to dispense Cytotec. Asked about the proper dosage, he reluctantly suggested that patients take one pill every two hours — 18 tablets in all.

According to the World Health Organization, the recommended dosage of misoprostol, if used alone for an abortion, should be four tablets (800 micrograms) every three hours for a total of three doses, or 12 tablets.

Gabriel Noguez, who works in a pharmacy down the street from Acosta and is also untrained, said his shop sold Cytotec for $241.80 per box.

“It sells. That’s the problem,” he said. “But I won’t tell them how to take it. I just say, ‘You might have problems later.’ ”

That’s Roe at 40. Border town pharmacists deciding who gets to choose.

What can you do to change things?

  • Talk about it. Tell the stories about why you support access to abortion without shame and without barriers. Seventy percent of Americans agree with you that Roe should be the law of the land, and three in ten woman will have had an abortion by the time they are 45 years old. You won’t be the outlier in the conversation.
  • Vote for politicians who support comprehensive, medically accurate sex education; universal healthcare that includes well-woman and contraceptive coverage; and public funding for abortions for women who qualify for public funding for the rest of their medical care.
  • Donate to organizations like Planned Parenthood, which supports women in all decisions they make about their health, Jane’s Due Process, which helps vulnerable teens access information and the court system, when needed, in order to obtain medical care and abortion; and Lilith Fund, which helps women access abortion by reducing the financial bar to obtaining one.
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