By Ellen Wulfhorst
VANCOUVER, Canada, June 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - New laws restricting abortion access in the United States raise the specter of women ending unwanted pregnancies with coat hangers and knitting needles in unsafe, back-alley procedures, reproductive rights experts said on Wednesday.
Women now may get medical abortions using pills, which is considered very safe, and find information online on handling unwanted pregnancies, delegates said this week at Women Deliver, the world's largest conference on gender equality.
Yet many will not have access to those options, said Merle Hoffman, who opened one of the first U.S. abortion clinics in New York, where the procedure was legal before Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court 1973 ruling that gave women the right nationwide.
"You don't know that it won't be coat hangers," Hoffman said. "There are very many young women and poor women and women of color, minority women around this country who don't have that access and may in fact resort to those kinds of things."
Nine states have passed strict laws restricting abortion access this year, seen as part of a multistate effort to have the high court reconsider its historic decision - a hot topic at the conference, attended by about 8,000 people.
The bans have been championed by conservatives, many of them Christian, who say fetuses should have rights comparable to those of infants and view abortion as tantamount to murder.
"Do I think there's going to be more unsafe abortion? Yes," said Robyn Churchill, a nurse-midwife who lives in Boston.
"Do I think it might be not go all the way back to pre-'73, the coat hanger, back-alley abortions? I'm very hopeful that it won't," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the We Deliver conference.
Medical abortions, which employ drugs to end pregnancies and often can be completed at home, will keep women safer than they were before 1973, she said. Used early in pregnancies, the pills can be obtained online, depending on state law.
However, often women do not know where to begin, said Claire Crossett, manager of the howtouseabortionpill.org website that, she said, together with the interactive safe2choose.com have had more than 500,000 visits since launching four years ago.
"We get questions from women like 'Can I drink bleach? Can I use a papaya to abort? How about aspirin and Coke?" Crossett said.
In Georgia, a law slated to take effect next year would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, about six weeks into pregnancy, although it is likely to be delayed by legal challenges.
Eva Lathrop, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Georgia, predicted that more women will keep their unwanted pregnancies, which could worsen maternal mortality rates, already the U.S.'s worst, according to the America's Health Rankings report.
If Roe v. Wade is changed or overturned, about 20 states have laws to remain abortion "havens" that offer access, said Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel for state policy and advocacy for the U.S.-based Center for Reproductive Rights.
But that might not help someone living far away, she said.
"More extensively than today, there would be people for whom abortion was just out of reach," Smith said.
Hoffman, who opened the New York clinic in 1971, is organizing groups to provide information and funding for women who may need to travel for abortions.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week found Americans have become more supportive of abortion rights over the past year, with 58% saying that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, up from 50% in a similar poll in 2018. (Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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