Self Help: A Revolution
in Women's Health
article written for paper newsletter in Sept. 2002
In California, before the
1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade making abortion legal nationwide,
most abortions were done in hospitals at a cost of approximately $3000. In order
to get an abortion, two doctors needed to certify the pregnancy would cause a
woman physical or mental harm, or that she had been raped. Abortion methods were
traumatic to women's bodies, and no one knew which doctors performed abortion,
legally or illegally, or where to go for help.
Carol Downer and Lorraine
Rothman were activists in California working to make abortion legal and safe.
When they realized some illegal safe abortion providers weren't even doctors,
they figured early abortion just couldn't be that complex, and decided to learn
more about it.
Carol went with a friend to her gynecologist's appointment.
During the exam, Carol got a glimpse of her friend's cervix, "It was a shock
to see how simple and accessible our anatomy is." When the doctor left the
room, Carol took the plastic speculum.
That night at a meeting of activists,
Carol pulled out the speculum saying, "I'd like to share something with you."
She climbed up on a desk and inserted the speculum allowing the amazed group to
see her cervix.
As Lorraine recalls, it was "of course. What did women
do before there were doctors? Let's stop the humiliation of trying to persuade
the powers that be to legalize abortion. Let's just take back the technology,
the tools, the skills and the information to perform early abortions and be in
charge of our own reproduction."
One woman in the group brought out
the abortion instruments from the illegal clinic where she worked - a cannula
and large plastic syringe. Lorraine, who had been studying medical texts, saw
some weaknesses in these tools. Over the next week, using materials that could
be purchased in most any city or town, Lorraine invented an apparatus she name
the 'Del Em.' With this device and a plastic speculum, a woman's menstrual period
could be suctioned around the time her period was due. If she happened to be newly
pregnant, the tiny cells of an early pregnancy were also removed. If women knew
when to expect their periods, they could safely perform 'Menstrual Extraction'
on each other to stay pregnancy free.
"Every time women came
together, at every meeting, self exam was shared in a group. We didn't define
it or describe it, we just did it." And the speculum became a symbol for
women's freedom from the medical establishment.
Though not on the official agenda at the 1971
National Organization for Women conference, the 'West Coast Sisters' rented a
hotel room and shared self help with conference participants. From those connections,
Carol and Lorraine put together a national tour, 23 cities in six weeks, sharing
self help and menstrual extraction. Some of the self help groups founded during
the trip later became feminist abortion clinics.
When Roe v. Wade
was decided in 1973, the Abortion Referral Service, also founded by Lorraine and
Carol, quickly became the Los Angeles Feminist Women's Health Center providing
safe, legal and empowering abortion services. Sister clinics soon followed in
other parts of California, as well
as Oregon, Iowa, Tallahassee, Atlanta...and
The early feminist
clinics completely revamped first and second trimester abortion techniques to
make them gentler and safer for women. They institutionalized the practice of
informed consent and unbiased counseling, making sure women had complete information
about all options.
The women's health movement started with a powerful idea
- to reclaim knowledge about our own bodies by learning from ourselves and each
other. The movement forever changed the manner in which abortion and birth were
controlled by hospitals and doctors, and the relationship thousands of women have
with their bodies.
Woman's Book of Choices by Rebecca Chalker and Carol Downer and interviews
with Lorraine Rothman.
for Choice Fall 2000, 20th Anniversary Edition Articles
In 2007, fifteen feminist clinics formed FAN, the Feminist Abortion Network.
October 17, 2007
I dare to be powerful - to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it
becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.
- Audre Lorde, poet
Feminist Women's Health Center