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.


A National Movement

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 Yakima.

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.


Sources: A Woman's Book of Choices by Rebecca Chalker and Carol Downer and interviews with Lorraine Rothman.

Voices for Choice Fall 2000, 20th Anniversary Edition Articles

In 2007, fifteen feminist clinics formed FAN, the Feminist Abortion Network.

updated October 17, 2007

When 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 and author

Feminist Women's Health Center home
Welcome to Feminist Women's Health Center
Women's Health
Poetry and Prose by feminists
Your Stories-Real Life Personal Abortion Stories
Abortion info from Feminist Women's Health Center Birth Control Comparison
Teens - sexual health info
Women's Health Questions and Answers
Espanol - Spanish
Take Pro-Choice Action
News & Views
Resources: books, websites, organization
Abortion Clinics - Feminist Abortion Network For Sale - speculum, tools for self exam, books Links Site Index Search

Feminist Women's Health Center