Can abortion be this easy?
December 20, 2010 11:52 AM   Subscribe

I watched the very good film "Vera Drake" the other day, and have a question about Vera's method of abortion. It seems she injected a mixture of water, soap, and what I think is disinfectant into the woman's uterus with a bulb syringe. Is this really enough to make a woman lose her baby? Not that I plan on trying this at home, mind you- I'm just curious.
posted by shelayna to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would guess that the disinfectant was a light solution of lye, which has historically been used as an abortificant.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:04 PM on December 20, 2010

Carbolic soap
posted by Artw at 12:10 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's been a while since I've seen Vera Drake, and I don't recall how specific they were in that film about methods, but I know several people who tell stories of people who provided or were given illegal abortions in Romania and Yugoslavia at various points in history. It seems that many different methods were used, depending on the technology at hand, and the method used by Vera Drake had many different "recipes," depending on the practitioner . . . so it could have been any number of things, though the two above are reasonable guesses.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:32 PM on December 20, 2010

One clinical method basically amounts to flushing the uterus with salt-water.
posted by Lifeson at 12:40 PM on December 20, 2010

Mike Leigh's award-winning film Vera Drake, about the almost forgotten trade of an illegal abortionist, is brilliant - well written, directed and acted, evocative of London life in the 1950s. But unfortunately, it is medically inaccurate.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:43 PM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

And more directly, from KokuRyu's link: "Vera's method of procuring an abortion - flushing out the uterus with soap and water - was invariably fatal....Thousands of women have died instantly from this abortion method."
posted by jedicus at 12:55 PM on December 20, 2010

The person who contends that abortion with carbolic soap and water is "invariably fatal" is incorrect. It is certainly risky, but it is clearly not "invariably fatal," as many still-living people have discussed their experiences with that exact method of abortion; Zelda d'Aprano, for instance, talks about it in her autobiograpy (iirc, the carbolic soap didn't work and she had to get a surgical abortion).
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:45 PM on December 20, 2010

Also, pregnancies are fragile--between one third and one half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage without any intervention.

Terminating pregnancies by introducing a substance called, variously, "Leunbach's paste"/utus paste/provocol was standard practice among both legal and illegal abortionists in the 20th century, despite its risks.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:04 PM on December 20, 2010

*spoiler* Something similar happens in the movie "Revolutionary Road," except the main character (played by Kate Winslet) purchases her materials at the local drugstore... and does it to herself.
posted by cass at 10:20 AM on December 21, 2010

In Forty Years of Murder by pathologist Keith Simpson, he talks about this being a common method of illegal abortion in the 1950s, which did sometimes lead to deaths. Here is a paragraph from that book which mentions both the method and the cause of accidental deaths:

"Air embolism can occur when a syringe is used to squirt soapy water from a bowl or jug into the womb to dislodge the sac of the pregnancy. Unless special care is taken to avoid it, the fluid level in the bowl or jug drops until the sucking valve of the syringe is uncovered and so sucks in air. The raw lining membrane of the womb is then exposed to frothed fluid, and air is forced into the veins causing air "locks" or embolisms."

He implies that it worked at least some of the time.
posted by andraste at 8:00 PM on December 21, 2010

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