In the meantime, the authorities were investigating the self helpers. Using infiltrators, investigators hoped to catch the self helpers performing abortions. In fact, when they finally raided the Self Help Clinic, the only evidence of criminal activity they could gather was a container of yogurt used for vaginal yeast infections, leading to the movement's lasting description of this episode as the Great Yogurt Conspiracy. In December 1972, Carol Downer was acquitted by a jury of charges that she was practicing medicine without a license. Many years later, author Linda Gordon described this decision as establishing the precedent that women's genitals were no longer territory reserved for men.
Shortly after, as a result of the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, abortions could be provided openly and independent of hospitals. The self helpers quickly established the Los Angeles Feminist Women's Health Center, a woman-controlled clinic. Doctors were hired by the self helpers to perform abortions, and many other services were provided, including "well woman" care. A self help attitude permeated the health care offered and the health center served as a base from which to continue spreading Self Help Clinic. By 1975, there were nearly 2000 grassroots women's health projects across the country and it had spread internationally. Though these projects ranged from book-writing groups to women fighting against sterilization abuse, many were woman-controlled clinics influenced by self help, some explicitly in the Feminist Women's Health Center model, others similar, but less closely aligned with the FWHCs.
During this period, the women's health movement was at a high point of its influence. Abortion was as widely available and accessible as it has ever been, before or since. Information about women's bodies and the drugs, devices and procedures used on women became available to women through books and an enormously expanded market for feminist health journalism. Medical schools and individual physicians began to realize that the callous and insensitive treatment many women received had to stop and took steps to reform medical training (not to mention abolishing the unwritten quotas that had severely limited the number of women allowed to enter medical school). Dangerous drugs and devices were improved or taken off the market as a result of women's protests. Curbs were placed on sterilization abuse. Challenges were posed to the US practice of funding foreign birth control programs strictly for the purposed of population control, not to empower women to control their own fertility. Many women came to believe, in a way almost inconceivable during the heyday of physician control, that their bodies were their own to understand and to control.
Along with all the other strands of the women's health movement, Self Help Clinic played a key role in these gains. Like other elements of the movement though, by the late 1970s Self Help Clinic began to experience backlash. The strategy of establishing clinics to offer women good health care and to serve as bases from which to spread self help led many groups to spend endless hours fighting regulatory battles about clinic licensing and the definition of "medical" services and who was allowed to provide them. The economic hard times of the 1980s, followed quickly by the anti-abortion violence, left many clinics unable to continue providing services. Midway through the 1990s, relatively few women-controlled clinics exist.
However, the spark of Self Help Clinic is still alive. Several Feminist Women's health Centers worked together to create three women's health books, A Woman-Centered Pregnancy and Birth,A New View of a Woman's Body, and How to Stay Out of the Gynecologist's Office. These books are available from FWHC, in addition to information on self examination (you can also order your very own speculum!).
Menstrual extraction, which had receded into the background during the years in which abortion was relatively available, was widely discussed in the mainstream press when the U.S. Supreme Court considered overturning Roe v Wade, but instead narrowed it in the Casey and Webster decisions. Self helpers even reprised the 1971 tour around that time, sharing self examination and menstrual extraction with groups of women interested in maintaining control over their reproduction regardless of the Supreme Court rulings. Self help groups are continuing to meet, particularly on college campuses and in cities with direct-action women's groups. Self Help Clinic is very much alive in the lasting impact the women's health movement has had upon women, their sense of their bodies , and the way in which health care provided to women has improved over the past twenty-five years.
Cindy Pearson is the Executive Director of the National Women's Health Network, and has been with NWHN since 1987. From 1978 to 1985, she was a Director of a FWHC. She has been a self helper for over 20 years.