The unusual decision to charge a 20-year-old Dominican immigrant with the crime of “self-abortion” has sent shock waves through Washington Heights, where a dead fetus was found discarded in an alleyway just after Thanksgiving.
Some, like Washington Heights resident Miguel Antonio Vasquez, support the decision. “They should throw her in jail, or worse. The baby was practically fully formed,” he said.
But others are more reluctant to judge. “We don’t know what sort of situation she might have been in,” said fruit vendor Rafael Piñero. “The only one that can judge her and that knows why she did what she did is God.”
The fetus, about six inches long with its umbilical cord still attached, was found in a bucket wrapped in a plastic bag on the 600 block of 191st Street on November 29th. Emergency responders pronounced the unborn baby girl dead on the scene, and New York City police arrested Aribely Almonte on the rarely-used charge of “self-abortion in the first degree,” a misdemeanor under New York state law for which Almonte could serve up to a year in jail if convicted.
According to The New York Times, New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services said Almonte’s case is only the fifth time since 1980 that self-abortion charges have been brought in the state, where abortion is illegal after the 24th week of pregnancy, unless a doctor certifies that the mother’s life is at risk.
Though the charge is rare, some in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights say cases of self-induced abortion are probably more common than is publicly acknowledged.
New York City police have confirmed that they are trying to determine whether Almonte terminated her pregnancy by drinking an herbal tea said to induce abortion, though they couldn’t release more specific information due to the pending investigation.
Teas like the one police suspect Almonte may have used are sold over the counter at more than a dozen Dominican “botanicas” or Santeria shops in Washington Heights. One is roble, which is the Spanish word for oak. In traditional Dominican medicine a tea is made from the bark and is prescribed as a digestive aid. When taken in high enough doses, it is also capable of causing an abortion, according to Al Guervaz, a Dominican nutritionist and herbalist practicing in New York City.
“Herbal-induced abortions are not very common in New York,” said Guervaz, who said they are more common in the Dominican Republic, “where there’s a high incidence of very young women becoming pregnant.”
But women in the neighborhood do share information about which herbal medicines are capable of causing abortions, and in what doses, according to Katerine Lopez, who works at Liberty Nutrition, a natural food supplement store catering to the Dominican community in Washington Heights.
Botanicas don’t sell roble or another herb, called tua tua, as abortion agents. But they are available at $3 an ounce for other uses (tua tau is an anti-parasitic that may cause an abortion at high enough doses), so a female customer can “ask for something specific that will work, but say that you need it for another ailment,” said Lopez. “Someone I know who was thinking of having an abortion recently found information on a Mexican website that told her which herbs she would have to take,” she said.
The use of such products for clandestine, potentially dangerous home abortions might seem an anomaly in a city like New York, which has a range of resources for women seeking to have a legal abortion. But Guervaz said women who use the teas for that purpose may be unaware of other options, or unable to use them because their families would object if they knew they had gone to an abortion clinic.
“People might not know about places like Planned Parenthood if they are recent immigrants that are unfamiliar with the laws and resources available to them,” he said.
Almonte is currently staying with her father away from Washington Heights, to avoid the scrutiny of neighbors and the media. Her family has said that she will return for her Jan. 3 court appearance, when she will likely be thrust once again into the spotlight.