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The Power of Pills: Putting Abortion Back in the Hands of Women Around the World

4:02 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Leila Hessini and Alyson Hyman for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

A collection of different pills

As governments force clinics out of business, pill-based abortions offer freedom of choice to women.

Unwanted pregnancies are a fact of life. Globally, nearly a fourth of all pregnancies are unplanned and 22 percent of pregnancies end in abortion. Women experience unwanted pregnancies because they have forced sex, (worldwide, one in three women are survivors of sexual violence), they don’t have access to contraceptives, or they simply didn’t plan on becoming pregnant.

Women who have unwanted pregnancies should be respected and their rights to choice upheld. However, in many countries, government policies, and societal practices do not uphold women’s right not to continue a pregnancy and women with unwanted pregnancies are forced into motherhood. Certainly this is evident in the United States; just before the new year, the governor of Virginia quietly signed legislation designed to close abortion clinics in the state. These laws are punitive, restricting women’s reproductive autonomy and freedom and creating categories of who can and can’t obtain abortions.

Fortunately for women, pills have changed the landscape of abortion. Abortion with pills, also known as medical abortion (MA), provides a safe, low-cost and easy to use method to terminate pregnancies. In addition to being safe and effective, medical abortion has changed the dynamics of who can provide abortions, where women get them, and who has control over the process. Evidence shows that those closest to women — community health workers and midwives — and women themselves can be trained to use abortion pills to safely terminate a pregnancy, thus giving women back the control of their own bodies. In fact, it was women in Brazil who first discovered the potential of misoprostol (cytotec) to safely end an unwanted pregnancy and who shared this knowledge through their social networks.

In order for women to benefit from the potential of medical abortion, however, they must be active participants in decisions related to where drugs are distributed and for what cost, what information is shared and by whom, and what social and medical support is needed.

Last month, Ipas hosted a meeting — “In Women’s Hands: Increasing Access to Medical Abortion Drugs and Information through Pharmacies and Drug Sellers” — in Nairobi, Kenya, that brought together 66 participants from 11 countries to discuss these important issues. Participants included a Kenyan hotline program manager, president of the Ugandan Midwives Association, several pharmacy managers from South Africa, and a Nepali senior public health officer in the Ministry of Health and Population, to name a few. The broad swath of countries and professionals represented illustrates commitment to a movement — to give women control of their reproductive lives, particularly through abortion with pills. In different countries, women, advocates and providers have developed innovative strategies to meet this goal.

In Tanzania, the Women’s Promotion Centre founded its own small pharmacy in a rural community as an alternative model for supporting women’s access to safe motherhood and abortion. This effort was born out of the “fire of anger about unnecessary deaths and suffering of women and… passion to save mothers’ lives in Kigoma,” said Martha Jerome of the Centre. Because no pharmacies were selling the lifesaving drug misoprostol, they founded a pharmacy to provide the drug themselves. They trained staff to provide counseling and support and they formed an alliance with like-minded doctors to help women with any complications. They also supply contraceptives as well as other medicines. The competition that resulted from their lower prices has driven down the cost from other private drug sellers, making these medicines more affordable for women who need them.

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Missed Your Period? Don’t Want to be Pregnant? There is an App for That

11:12 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Karin Gardiner for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

“To avoid judgement and fear, it is always useful step into the shoes of another person. I invite you into mine.”

Colorful window display lists drug prices.

A Mexican pharmacy window

So begins the journey of a 19-year-old Mexican named Claudia, protagonist of an inventive computer game.

¿No Te Baja? which translates as Missed Your Period? makes use of bright colors, engaging cartoon characters and relatable, non-technical, language to inform and guide users through the steps they can take to terminate a pregnancy using Misoprostol. The website takes the form of an interactive, Choose Your Own Adventure style game, where users click through to different scenarios that change according to their own personal situation and decisions.

Misoprostol, a drug used to treat ulcers, is easily available for purchase throughout Mexico, and, unlike in the United States, does not require a prescription. Use of Misoprostol to terminate pregnancy is widespread in parts of Mexico where abortion is illegal, but pharmacy workers often lack the knowledge of how the drug should correctly be administered — and criminalization means that helpful information is scarce.

Although abortion of up to 12 weeks of pregnancy is available on demand in Mexico City, the situation is quite different in the rest of the country. In fact, Mexico City’s 2007 legalization of abortion prompted a backlash from 17 other states, which passed amendments stating that life begins at conception, ushering in a much stricter enforcement of already existing anti-abortion laws.

Users of No Te Baja, through the actions of Claudia and her boyfriend, go through each detailed step of the process of self-administering a medication abortion: from the initial pregnancy test to the decision whether or not to involve the partner; the signs and symptoms of an ectopic pregnancy to calculating gestational age to indicate whether or not use of Misoprostol will be effective — and if it will be safe to self-administer.

The game advises that Misoprostol can be purchased in most pharmacies and that it may be sold under various other commercial names including Cytotec, Cyrox, and Tomispral.  Users receive detailed information on how to administer Misoprostol through the mouth or the vagina, noting that, in the event of having to seek medical attention, medical personnel would likely be able to detect the remnants of the pills inside the vagina — important information for women living in areas where they can be prosecuted for inducing an abortion.

The central Mexican state of Guanajuato, where hospital staff report suspicious miscarriages to the police, is one such place. The Nation described the state’s approach to dealing illegal abortion in a January 2012 article by Mary Cuddehe:

“The state has opened at least 130 investigations into illegal abortions over the past decade, according to research by women’s rights groups, and fourteen people, including three men, have been criminally convicted. Given Mexico’s 2 percent national conviction rate during its most violent period since the revolution, that’s a successful ratio.”

No Te Baja doesn’t end with the final dosage of medication: users (and Claudia) are informed of what signs to look out for that would require medical attention, and of how to tell if the abortion is incomplete. The final stages of the game offer information on how to avoid another unplanned pregnancy with detailed descriptions of different methods of contraception.

Photo by ArizonaGlo released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.