Carol Downer

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Carol Downer
Carol Downer.jpg
OccupationImmigration Lawyer, Author, Activist, Board of Directors of the Feminist Women's Health Centers of California
Years active40+ years
AwardsChristopher Tietze Humanitarian Award in 1998, Wiley W. Manuel Award in 1994,

Carol Downer (born 1933 in Oklahoma) is an American feminist lawyer and non-fiction author who has focused her career on abortion rights and women's health around the world.


Downer was born in 1933 in Oklahoma, but was raised in Los Angeles, where she started her local political movements in East Los Angeles in the 1960s. She was not active in the women's movement until 1963, when she had her first abortion after separating from her first husband, who was the father of her four children. She was inspired after watching a protest on the television held at the University of California, Los Angeles, about the lack of birth control services offered on the campus. After going through her experience with the painful abortion, in the early 1970s Downer began her quest to making abortions safer for other women. She joined the LA Chapter of NOW's Abortion Committee where she met Harvey Karman. Mr. Karman was unlicensed in the medical field, and was the one responsible for educating Downer on safe abortion procedures by using suction to remove the fetus rather than scraping the uterus. Shortly after, Downer introduced menstrual extraction to other activists.[1]

Life and career[edit]

Downer began her activist career in the movement for civil rights and local politics in California during the 1960s. She became active in the women's liberation movement in 1969, and she worked to try to make abortion available in Los Angeles, California under the liberalized abortion law. Downer began her work in the women's health movement on the Abortion Task Force of NOW with Lana Clarke Phelan, author of The Abortion Handbook, who became her mentor. Downer and other women observed abortion procedures at Harvey Karman's illegal abortion clinic on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles to learn how to perform abortions themselves. While there, she took a vaginal speculum and figured out how to do a vaginal self-examination. After Downer and others formed the Los Angeles Abortion Task Force, they called a meeting on April 7, 1971 at a feminist book store to educate women about abortion and their bodies. Downer demonstrated the vaginal self-examination to the estimated two dozen women who attended.[2] Downer's group founded the Women's Abortion Referral Service, the first of its kind to offer pregnancy screening. "Women came from all over for help", Downer said.[3]

The result of this first meeting of the Self-Help Clinic was the development of the concept of menstrual extraction and the invention of the Del-Em kit by Lorraine Rothman. This provided women with a less traumatic abortion option than the use of a metal tool to scrape the inside of the uterus, which was predominately used at the time.[2] Downer and Rothman travelled across the country and many Self-Help Clinics were formed.[4][5] During this time, abortion, birth control and fertility information were not widely available to women. The menstrual extraction and vaginal self examinations that Downer pioneered with her team provided women with the means to learn about their bodies and take control of their reproduction. Barbara Ehrenreich described Downer and Rothman's efforts as "legitimizing the notion that we have the right to know and decide about procedures...that affect our bodies and our lives."[2] In 1972 she also gave a notable speech to the American Psychological Association on September 5, 1972, in Hawaii, entitled "Covert Sex Discrimination Against Women as Medical Patients."[6]

She and Rothman were leaders of a group that founded the Feminist Women's Health Center in Los Angeles in 1971. Equipped with vaginal speculums, they traveled the United States to share their information with women around the country.[7] Downer and Rothman also promoted group meetings where they taught women how to self-administer cervical exams and provided them with information on a procedure called menstrual extraction. Downer and Rothman trained women how to suction out menstrual material on or near the time of the menstrual period; if the woman is pregnant, this constitutes a non-professional abortion.[8][9][10][11][12][13] When they came back from their trip around the US, Downer and her followers started a women's abortion referral service at their own clinic. In 1972, the police conducted a search of Downer's clinic/health center and arrested her and Colleen Wilson for practicing medicine without a proper license. Called the Great Yogurt Conspiracy, they were using yogurt inter-vaginally to treat a woman's yeast infection.[7][14][15][16] Downer was later acquitted of all charges.

Within 50 days of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which ruled that women have a right to end their pregnancy, her group opened the Women's Choice Clinic[17] in Los Angeles and Orange County. Over the next two years, other Feminist Women's Health Centers were established, forming part of the Federation of Feminist Women's Health Center in 1975.[16]

From 1987 to 1991, Downer attended law school and worked for the Federation of FWHCs. Since then, she has practiced law, mostly in the area of disability rights. In 1981, she was the general editor of A New View of a Woman's Body, published by Simon and Schuster, and she was an editor of a companion book, How to Stay Out of the Gynecologist's Office, published by Women to Women Publication. In 1984, she and Francie Hornstein assisted Ginny Casside-Brinn, a Registered Nurse, in writing Woman-Centered Pregnancy and Birth, published by Cleis Press. But during the Reagan Administration, the anti-abortion movement grew, and the clinics were hit with protests. "The low point was 1985, when the clinic burned down, but we didn’t give up," Downer said. Many believe the fire was started by protesters. So these women began mobile clinics located in vans, which did screenings in a safe and secure location.[18]

In 1992, she wrote A Woman's Book of Choices with Rebecca Chalker, published by Seven Stories Press. She has also served on the Board of Directors of the National Abortion Federation. Downer's book included instructions on how to practice early abortions more safely. The procedure requires the assistance of at least two experts. The book does not only tell readers to do abortions on their own, but it gives advice about when a woman should go to a medical practitioner to terminate early pregnancy.[19]

Downer is currently promoting women's liberation, giving speaking presentations, and working on her next book in which she advances the belief that women's collective efforts to achieve their sexual and reproductive liberation is a fundamental strategy for social change. She is also working on the board of directors of the Feminist Women's Health Centers of California. This board operates eight Women's Health Specialist Clinics.[7] She recently posted a video on YouTube about the history of her foundation and how she taught other women about the speculum abortion technique.[20] She is also an immigration lawyer in the Los Angeles area.[7]


Throughout Carol Downer's career, she has received multiple awards, such as:[7]

· Outstanding Women Edition of Life Magazine in 1976.

· Women's Caucus of American Health Association in 1989

· Wiley W. Manuel Award in 1994

· Ms. Magazine in 1996

· National Abortion Federation's, Christopher Tietze Humanitarian Award in 1998.



  1. ^ Radio, Southern California Public (2017-04-14). "The secret home abortion movement that started in LA two years before Roe v. Wade". Southern California Public Radio. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
  2. ^ a b c Woo, Elain. (2007). “Lorraine Rothman, 75; feminist clinic’s co founder helped demystify gynecology.” Los Angeles Times. url=
  3. ^ McGRAW, CAROL (1989-02-14). "'The low point was 1985, when the clinic burned down. We didn't give up. We did screenings from a van parked outside.'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 12/11/2014. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  4. ^ Davis, Flora. (1991). Moving the Mountain The Women's Movement in America since 1960, New York: Simon Schuster. p. 232-233
  5. ^ Morgen, Sandra.(2002)."Into Our Hands The Women's Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990,"New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press. p.34,124
  6. ^ "Covert Sex Discrimination Against Women as Medical Patients".
  7. ^ a b c d e "Carol Downer - Womens Health Specialists".
  8. ^ Gordon, Linda.(2002)."The Moral Property of Women A History of Birth Control Politics in America,"Chicago:University of Illinois Press.p.325
  9. ^ Love, Barbara J.(2006)."Feminist Who Changed America 1963-1975,"Urbana and Chicago:University of Illinois Press.p.123
  10. ^ Marieskind, Helen I.(1980)."Women in the Health System,"St.Louis, Missouri:The C.V. Mosby Company.p.292
  11. ^ Morgen, Sandra.(2002)."Into our Hands The Women's Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990,"New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press. p.7, 22-23, 34, 124
  12. ^ Ruzek, Sheryl Burt.(1978)."The Women's Health Movement Feminist Alternatives to Medical Control,"New York:Praeger Publishers.p.53-58
  13. ^ Sage-Femme Collective.(2008)."Natural Liberty Rediscovering Self-Induced Abortion Methods,"Las Vegas, Nevada:Sage-Femme! p.64
  14. ^ Morgen, Sandra.(2002)."Into Our Hands The Women's Health Movement in the United States, 1969-1990,"New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press. p. 130
  15. ^ Baehr, Ninia (1990). Abortion without apology. South End Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-89608-384-5. carol downer great yogurt conspiracy.
  16. ^ a b Ruzek, Sheryl Burt.(1978)."The Women's Health Movement Feminist Alternatives to Medical Control,"New York:Praeger Publishers.p.144
  17. ^ McGraw, Carol (1989-02-14). "'The low point was 1985, when the clinic burned down. We didn't give up. We did screenings from a van parked outside". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 3 October 2017.
  18. ^ "la times". February 14, 1989.
  19. ^ Schreiber, Le Anne (1993). "What Kind of Abortions Do We Want?". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-10-04.
  20. ^


  • Women's Health The Virtual Oral Aural History Archive [1]

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