Texas isn't the only state where lawmakers are pushing to tighten restrictions on abortions. The American Civil Liberties Union calls 2013 "one of the most the most regressive years yet when it comes to taking away access to safe, legal abortion services." Not everybody agrees with that assessment, of course. Americans have a range of opinions when it comes to terminating pregnancies, and those tending toward a more restrictive stance may look in favor on new laws they see as protecting life. But as "Hatpin Dolly," Frank Sinatra's mother and a provider of illicit abortions, demonstrated decades ago, when there's demand for an illicit or tightly regulated medical service, underground suppliers will arise. Tight new laws around the country may be bringing back the black market for abortions.
At an open-air flea market outside McAllen, Texas (BEESTX), near the Mexican border, shoppers can buy a goat and get their car windows tinted. Tables with handwritten signs touting Viagra (MDPSVIAG) are stocked with herbal remedies promising to burn fat and boost breast size. You can also find pills to end a pregnancy.
Bazaars like this have become home to a thriving black market, where women too poor to afford an abortion at a clinic or deterred by state mandates such as a 24-hour waiting period can buy drugs to induce a miscarriage on their own, a dozen area residents and doctors said in interviews.
Hundreds of miles north in Austin, the capital, lawmakers may inadvertently increase this illegal trade. Rules set to pass as soon as this week might result in the closing of most, if not all, abortion facilities in the state. If the law—promoted as a way to improve women's health—makes legal abortion unavailable in Texas, more women may turn to markets such as the one near McAllen and risk their lives.
"You'd be amazed at how many people, young people, are taking those pills," said Erlinda Dasquez, a 29-year-old mother of four who has done so herself. "I probably know 12 to 20 people who have done this. My cousin just went to the flea market a few months ago."
The specific medication available at the flea market for terminating pregnancies is Cytotec, which is available in Mexico without a prescription for treating stomach ulcers, and smuggled from there to the United States for other purposes. WebMD provides the following warning for Cytotec:
Do not take this medication if you think that you may be pregnant. It may cause abortion, premature birth, or birth defects. In rare cases, serious complications (e.g., uterine rupture) have occurred when misoprostol was used to start labor or when used in combination with another drug to cause abortion after the eighth week of pregnancy. These complications have resulted in harm to the unborn baby and mother.
Not surprisingly, the Bloomberg article goes on to detail misuses and medical complications that comes from using black market abortifacients according to instructions handed along a not-so-reliable grapevine.
And yet the demand for terminating pregnancies exists, as it always has, for a variety of reasons, personal and economic. As tighter restrictions force legal abortion providers that don't meet stringent new requirements to close (the two serving the Lower Rio Grande Valley near the flea market in the Bloomberg piece are expected to have to close their doors), the demand for black market alternatives can only grow.