WITH FREE-BLEEDING DEMONSTRATIONS and menstrual blood art making headlines, a controversial and relatively unknown menstrual practice is on the rise. Menstrual extraction is making a comeback, and it is high time we all started talking about it.
Months before Roe v. Wade was argued before the Supreme Court, Lorraine Rothman invented the Del Em: an improved-upon clinic apparatus that could remove, via suction, the contents of a woman’s uterus. At the time, Feminist Women’s Health Centers and other clinics were cropping up around the country, with the aim of educating women about their bodies and their options. The Del Em offered these groups the opportunity to perform menstrual extractions in a group setting.
The procedure results in a 20-minute-long period, as the woman’s menstrual blood is vacuumed out through a sterile cannula into a small jar. Doula Brandi Kilburn, who participates in a menstrual extraction group in Albuquerque, tells Mic.com that “a woman might want to use menstrual extraction as a way to avoid her period during an upcoming vacation or romantic encounter, or maybe she just wants to avoid going through severe cramping.”
For most people, the idea of giving women shorter and easier periods — or even no period at all — is hardly controversial. We have long since established that some forms of hormonal birth control may be used to safely suppress and skip a period, for the same reasons Kilburn lists above. However, like almost any other form of menstrual regulation, menstrual extraction has an alternate effect: it can end an early pregnancy.
In the 1970s, many of the women who worked in feminist clinics, as well as members of Chicago’s famous Jane Collective, used the Del Em and similar devices to perform menstrual extractions. While these organizations’ intentions were to empower women by giving them greater knowledge of their bodies, it would be dishonest to present their use of menstrual extraction as anything other than a method of family planning: an illegal abortion procedure, born out of desperation.
Menstrual extraction never really caught on in the contemporary U.S., for a variety of reasons. In the years that followed the Del Em’s development, abortion became legal, safe, and accessible for millions of women across the country. Contraceptives were made available to all people who could afford them, regardless of marital status. Women entered the workforce, raised children alone, and fought all of the battles involved with these social shifts, largely because the government recognized their right to legally and safely control the size of their families.
In countries where women don’t have these opportunities, however, menstrual extraction has flourished. The procedure is legally performed by medical personnel in Bangladesh, where abortion is only legal to save a woman’s life. Even in Cuba, where abortions are legal, women use menstrual extraction as their chosen form of contraception.
Now, with women’s right to choose assailed by proposed law after proposed law, menstrual extraction is on the rise in the U.S.
It’s important to note that, although menstrual extraction can be an affordable and accessible abortion option, its availability should not be used to dispute the need for safe, legal, and accessible abortions in the clinic setting. It’s more safe than the alternative, but menstrual extraction does not save women in Bangladesh from the oft-fatal complications that stem from unsafe, illegal abortion procedures.
In the U.S., health care professionals aren’t exactly enthused by the increasing prevalence of menstrual extraction. Their concerns aren’t unfounded. If improperly inserted, the cannula could damage the uterus. Bacteria can easily be introduced if equipment and environments are not properly sterilized. When menstrual extraction is used as an early-term abortion procedure, it is possible to leave part of the products of conception behind, which can lead to life-threatening complications.
Menstrual extraction’s adherents maintain a degree of suspicion about the medical establishment’s disapproval. Kilburn believes the apprehension has its roots in the historical oppression of women: “We are spoon-fed shame at every level about being sexual, female or self-capable.”
Regardless of whether or not doctors approve, menstrual extraction will continue to rise in the U.S., so long as lawmakers continue to chip away at our rights and access to abortion and women’s health care providers. While I admire the temerity of women who take a classic, do-it-yourself approach to menstrual regulation, as a non-medical professional, I cannot suggest it as a practice to others. Rather, I offer a warning.
We will continue down this long road back to a bygone era, unless we reverse course. I don’t generally subscribe to a slippery slope theory, but it is clear that we are slowly returning to pre-Roe days. It begins with menstrual extractions — which will undoubtedly see increased play in holistic and hipster communities — but it ends with at-home abortions that will leave women hurt, sick, and dying.