A Return to the Abortion Handbook?
During one of my last visits with abortion activist Patricia Maginnis in 2015, she handed me The Abortion Handbook for Responsible Women. Published in 1969 and coauthored by Maginnis and her friend and fellow activist Lana Clarke Phelan, The Abortion Handbook was a no-holds-barred assessment of the problem facing abortion-seeking women in the years before Roe. In the weeks after the Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, I picked up the handbook again, opened the cover, and read the inscription Maginnis had written to a friend in September 1969: “It’s been a loooong, hard struggle and I’m wondering if it will ever, ever end with women taking a serious role in determining their own reproductive fate.”
Initially, Maginnis’s words rang in my mind as I read recent reports of people seeking information about “DIY abortions,” or what researchers refer to as self-managed abortion care. Google searches for self-managed care are on the rise, especially in places where people are already facing legal and economic barriers to care. Abortion doulas, those who support people in finding clinics, provide accompaniment, or help people through the process of self-managed care, are in greater demand than ever. Articles documenting transnational travel for access to abortion medications, such as misoprostol and mifepristone, reveal a marked increase in people seeking ways to manage and support their own abortion care as restrictions rise across the country. People living in states like Texas and California are no strangers to crossing the U.S.-Mexico border for various kinds of medical care, including abortion. As I have documented, there is a long history of people seeking access to abortion care in northern Mexico that framed the demand for the legalization of abortion and gave us Roe v. Wade nearly fifty years ago.
For decades, the internet has been a crucial resource for self-managed abortion information–and now, in the shadow of Roe’s repeal, resources for self-managed care will become ever more important. As we have seen, however, conservatives are open to all manner of constraints, including criminalizing people for accessing abortion medication, banning people from traveling for abortions, and monitoring online searches of abortion care and contraception as evidence for prosecutions.
Advocates and activists, like Patricia Maginnis and her crew, have always found a way to disseminate resources about reproductive care. For centuries before the internet, people passed this information in various forms. Midwives, apothecaries, and well-versed women knew what might help prevent pregnancy or induce a miscarriage. In the United States, Black and Indigenous women, Asian women, white women, and Latinas have all passed and saved reproductive health information via oral traditions, as well as the written word.
By the early twentieth century, as physicians seized reproductive knowledge from lay practitioners and women themselves, birth control activists, like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, wrote and distributed information about menstruation, reproductive health, puberty, sex, and hygiene. Sanger did this despite it being illegal; the Comstock Laws (1873) had made it unlawful to send or distribute anything considered immoral or indecent, and information concerning reproduction fell under this provision.
While Comstockery became a relic by the mid-1930s, many feminists had never let up. Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, abortion advocates passed information about procuring abortions outside the borders of the U.S. In the mid-1960s, Maginnis, along with fellow Bay Area feminists Phelan and Rowena Gurner, started the Society for Humane Abortions (SHA) and the Association to Repeal Abortions Laws (ARAL), two organizations dedicated to dismantling abortion restrictions in California. Maginnis, Phelan, and Gurner also traveled across the state—and later the country—providing educational workshops on contraception, human sexuality, and what they called “do-it-yourself abortion methods.”
According to Maginnis, it was Phelan’s idea to write this down in The Abortion Handbook, so that women would have ready access to information about their own bodies, knowledge of reproductive histories and politics, and an understanding of reproductive services. They also provided resources about where to obtain an abortion, in collaboration with the Clergy Consultation Service, and produced lists of reputable abortion providers in the U.S., as well as in Mexico and Japan, where American women (with the means to do so) traveled for care.
Maginnis and Phelan’s The Abortion Handbook, a 192-page manual with 11 chapters and a 3-page bibliography, described ways to self-induce an abortion. They offered various levels of advice, including in subchapters titled “Mrs. No-Money Goes to the Hospital for Clean-Up” and “Mrs. No-Money Does Not Go to the Hospital for Clean-Up,” as well as suggestions for various kinds of tools to use, symptoms to expect, and precautions to take. For instance, if a woman encountered complications during her “do-it-yourself” abortion and found herself in an emergency room confronted by police, Phelan and Maginnis meted out this advice:
“If police threaten to withhold medical care until you talk, they are strictly violating your legal and civil rights…You do not have to incriminate yourself or anyone else to obtain medical care in the United States of America. Turn your head away from this psychic-rapist police inquisitor and tell him you are very ill, to take his dirty questions somewhere else until you have an attorney to speak for you…”
Driven by deep indignation, the Bay Area feminists also wrote nearly 30 pages on how to feign psychoses or “practice manic-depression” to circumvent restrictions in states like California that made special provisions for abortion when a woman’s mental health was at stake.
It was only after further meditation and rereading the other chapters of the book that I understood Maginnis’ 1969 dedication, “women taking a serious role in determining their own reproductive fate,” differently than I had initially. After lambasting doctors, politicians, religious institutions, and all other men whose “holier-than-thou attitude” shunned women seeking abortions, Maginnis and Phelan turned their ire to women. The opening paragraph of chapter nine, titled “Women May Deserve the Contempt They Receive,” reads: “For a century, you and I, our mothers and grandmothers, have remained irresponsibly silent concerning what ‘they’ [men] chose to do with our private bodies. Silence implies consent and agreement. More often, silence denotes ignorance and icy fear.”
Maginnis and Phelan reserved terse language for women who did not vehemently denounce “the sub-human status [we] hold today in America,” one that “inevitably made of mother love and childbearing a hollow mockery and an animal duty,” because they believed in the feminist notion of solidarity as fundamental to reproductive liberation.
Maginnis and Phelan chastised generations prior for not uniting politically to end the criminalization of abortion. And so SHA activists mobilized and organized against those who sought to take their bodily sovereignty away, which included admonishing older generations who had not worked to end the scourge sooner. They acknowledged that this chapter was “pretty strong talk,” but Phelan and Maginnis insisted that “this is a time for searching into our own souls…As long as women do not respect and support each other in such fundamental things, we can expect to be viewed with contempt by the males who present a united front alleging superiority they do not always possess.”
As providers, activists, and scholars prepare to deal with a dearth of abortion provisions, lack of access to basic reproductive care, and the policing and criminalization of any kind of reproductive health services information, we would do well to linger on Maginnis’ opening comment once more; the struggle is in taking a serious role in determining our own reproductive fate. Our struggle is not only in our ability to provide services and care—that will be difficult, but we’ve done it before. But this time, like in the past, the serious role we must take on is one of solidarity, in collectively protecting the reproductive fate of all people caught in the crosshairs of an ethno-Christian white nationalist patriarchy determined to control us all.
Today, we must energize SHA’s commitment to solidarity and political organizing once again. While some advocates are fighting to preserve the maternalist language of generations past, others are seeking to create a broader coalition to reclaim bodily autonomy for all people. With an anti-abortion movement that is more extensive, better organized, and funded than it was during SHA’s time, only a united front will beat them back. Those who refuse to build a bigger tent, one that includes women, nonbinary, and trans people at the margins of reproductive and social care today, may deserve the contempt they receive. As V. Jo Hsu elegantly reminds us, we’re wasting precious resources and coalition-building potential fighting culture wars about whether or not we should say “pregnant women” or “pregnant people.” No one is saying we can’t or shouldn’t say both, especially since the forces hellbent on denying people abortions and trans-affirming health care are the same. Now is the time for “searching into our souls” and “respecting and supporting” each other in the fundamental work of reproductive freedom.
Lina-Maria Murillo is Assistant Professor in the departments of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, History, and Latina/o/x Studies at the University of Iowa. She is completing her first book, Fighting for Control: Power, Reproductive Care, and Race in the U.S-Mexico Borderlands. Her work is supported by several grants and fellowships, including from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), and the Ford Foundation. Her writing appears in the Washington Post, Rewire News, and Notches. Her article “Birth Control, Border Control: The Movement for Contraception in El Paso, Texas 1936–1940” appeared in the Pacific Historical Review in 2021. “Espanta Cigüeñas: Race and Abortion in the U.S-Mexico Borderlands” is forthcoming in Signs: A Journal of Women and Culture in Society. Murillo is also co-director with Professor Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz of the Maternal Health and Reproductive Politics Obermann collaborative at U Iowa.