When I went to see Lorraine Rothman earlier this week, she was still a little jetlagged after a flight from Spain. She and another woman from the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers had been the guests of the Spanish government at the State Congress on Family Planning in Seville--the only Americans there.
The Europeans, Rothman says, were extremely receptive to what she had to say about redefining women’s sexuality and empowering women to care for themselves.
In her own country, it is often not so.
That’s because Rothman, a leader in the feminist self-help movement since the early 1970s, has given women the means to perform abortions on each other, without a physician.
Increasingly, they are doing so. Lorraine Rothman, 57 years old, wife, mother, grandmother, author, former elementary school teacher and Orange County resident for some 25 years, realizes that most Americans may be shocked by this idea, many of them outraged.
But that doesn’t really concern Rothman, a woman easy with a laugh, casual in tone, yet extremely serious with her message. Women have been denied the power to control their own bodies. She is offering a solution.
Rothman’s patented “menstrual extraction kit” is a disarmingly simple device about which she talks very plainly. But the implications of her creation are far less simple.
“It is truly women controlling our reproduction in a shared, supportive way,” Rothman says. “And now, interest is really picking up again.”
The now that Rothman refers to is, of course, the charged political climate in the wake of this summer’s Supreme Court decision that opened the way for state legislatures to restrict a woman’s right to abortion.
While more mainstream groups such as Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women have taken the ruling as a call to conventional political activism, women in the self-help movement have begun preparing themselves for the possibility that abortion may be severely restricted or outlawed.
In small, underground groups, they have been performing early suction abortions, free of charge and, Rothman says, free of medical complications.
“What women are saying is, ‘I don’t want to be caught with an unplanned pregnancy and have nowhere to turn except maybe to a coat hanger,’ ” she says.
But among the critics of self-help abortion have been other pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation, who argue that the lay use of menstrual extraction devices is unsafe and politically unwise.
“They are thinking like we did in ’68, ’69, when we thought that rational human beings just needed to be talked with, that agencies, doctors, hospitals, legislatures would change,” Rothman counters. “There is a basic naivete about what is really going on politically in our country.”
Rothman and others who have used the devices--their numbers are believed to be in the thousands--say they are safer and more gentle than those used in conventional abortion clinics. Although the groups keep no records--"any time we write anything down it can be used against us"--Rothman says that since she invented the device in 1971, she knows of no cases of perforated uteruses and only 10 infections among women who have used it.
And although the traditional medical Establishment has voiced the strongest objections, which Rothman attributes to their fear of women encroaching on their territory “which is our territory,” she adds that she has been surprised by the positive response the idea has received.
“I have been amazed at the community women, not necessarily movement women, who have grasped this idea and said, ‘Of course, yes. This makes so much sense.’ ”
Until recently, it had been years since Lorraine Rothman had spoken publicly about her device. It really hadn’t been necessary.
When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe vs. Wade in 1973, women seeking abortion had several options for obtaining one.
Rothman says that outside interest in the device, which is not for sale and available only through self-help groups, dropped off. Many of the groups, however, continued to use them, for abortions or to short-cut what is normally five days of menstrual bleeding.
But faced earlier this year with the possibility that the Supreme Court might overturn or amend Roe vs. Wade, as it did in June, the Los Angeles-based Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers produced the video, “No Going Back: A Pro-Choice Perspective.”
The 28-minute film, now being shown to women’s groups across the country, begins by advising viewer discretion; there is footage of an abortion performed at a clinic as well as a menstrual extraction performed by a self-help group.
In the same film, Lorraine Rothman looks into the camera and demonstrates the simplicity of the extraction kit, exactly as she did for me in her living room.
The device is nothing more than a small glass jar, a plastic stopper, two tubes of the type used in home aquariums, a plastic syringe fitted with an automatic valve, and a flexible narrow tube known as a Karman cannula.
“The cannula goes into the uterus,” Rothman says, placing the tube into a glass of water that represents the uterus. Then she pulls back on the syringe and water races through one of the tubes and into the glass jar.
“That’s all there is to it,” she says.
But there is more to it than that, of course. Rothman, who asks that I not name the city where she lives, knows that better than most. Anti-abortionists have threatened her. Two of the federation’s health clinics have been firebombed.
Officials from California’s Department of Health Services recently watched “No Going Back,” and warned the film’s producers that, under a 1976 law, it is illegal to manufacture or sell the menstrual extraction kit without formal state approval.
The federation’s attorney has argued that the same law allows devices manufactured before 1976, such as the IUD, to be grandfathered in. Rothman says the self-help group likes to call her device “extralegal,” because it has not been challenged in court.
Rothman acknowledges that self-help groups are not for every woman, nor are they meant to be.
“And we would never even imply that women should do it on themselves,” she says. “That would not be safe and you would have to be a contortionist. . . . But a lot of women feel better with the knowledge that abortion is not this heavy-duty thing that is so dangerous. Far from it. Women can learn about abortion.”