New York Woman Faces Up to Eight Years Behind Bars for Selling Abortion Pills Online

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Commentary My Body. My Rules.

New York Woman Faces Up to Eight Years Behind Bars for Selling Abortion Pills Online

Imani Gandy

In February, FDA agents showed up at Ursula Wing’s door with an arrest warrant and seized her computer and phones, her daughter’s iPad, boxes of medication abortion pills, and a dozen packages that she was set to mail. 

A New York City woman who sold medication abortion pills to more than 2,000 people over two years has been indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce. If convicted, she could face up to eight years in prison.

In 2012, the woman, Ursula Wing, posted on her blog the Macrobiotic Stoner about her experience terminating her pregnancy using pills that she had bought online. Four years later, she found herself running a business providing medication abortion pills to customers who needed them, including a teenager who was afraid to tell her parents that she was pregnant, and a woman who hid her abortion from her abusive partner.

She did not see herself as an activist at first, according to an interview she gave Mother Jones earlier this year. But, she said, “it started changing into something political.”

After Wing wrote on her blog about her experience buying abortion pills online, women in the comments section began to ask her where they could obtain them. It was the perfect storm: Wing, a single mother who needed to supplement her income as a web developer to help pay for legal fees related to a custody battle she was fighting, filled the demand she saw for self-managed abortion.

Given the anti-choice success in reducing abortion access, some pregnant people have turned toward self-managed abortion care to terminate their pregnancies. Many pregnant people prefer self-managed care, especially if don’t feel safe going to abortion clinics—perhaps, for example, because of their gender identity or immigration status—or if they cannot take the time required to comply with various state regulations, like waiting periods and mandatory counseling and ultrasounds.

Wing launched a separate website in May 2016 and sold medication abortion kits there for $85 with expedited shipping. Medication abortion is a non-surgical procedure that involves a pregnant patient taking two drugs. The first drug, mifepristone, works by blocking the hormone progesterone, which causes the lining of the uterus to break down so that the pregnancy cannot continue. The second drug, misoprostol, which causes cramps and heavy bleeding that usually lasts for a few hours, induces contractions and ends the pregnancy.

Medication abortion in a clinical setting costs anywhere from $400 to $1,000, depending on one’s health insurance (or lack thereof), the state, and the provider. Some overseas suppliers, meanwhile, can charge upward of $350 for medication abortion kits. But Wing bought the pills in bulk from India and marked them up 100 percent. This, in her view, was more than enough.

In 2017, a group called Plan C, which provides information on self-managed abortion, and Gynuity Health Projects, a group that works to ensure that reproductive health technologies are widely available at a reasonable cost, conducted a “mystery shopper” study that rated 11 medication abortion kit suppliers on price, shipping time, and product quality. Wing’s service scored an A, the highest of the 11 services. The next best service scored an A-, but the price for the abortion kits cost $155 more than Wing’s.

Elisa Wells, co-founder of Plan C, said that Wing “appeared to be a woman helping other women,” according to Mother Jones. Wing would respond personally to customer emails, and her comment section became a place where women seeking self-managed abortion care could find support.

After the Plan C report card was published, Wing says her sales increased dramatically, from a handful per week to 60 or more orders per week.

For two years, Wing reportedly sold medication abortion kits to more than 2,000 people. As her site grew in popularity, so did her notoriety. When a Wisconsin man named Jeffrey Smith was arrested in February 2018 for allegedly dosing a woman who was pregnant with his child by slipping mifepristone into her drink, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was alerted to Wing’s illicit business. Smith had apparently ordered packages from Wing’s site twice, according to Mother Jones. Smith was charged with attempted first-degree homicide of an unborn baby and delivery of a prescription drug, according to the Wausau Daily Herald.

A year later, in February 2019, FDA agents showed up at Wing’s door with an arrest warrant and seized her computer and phones, her daughter’s iPad, boxes of medication abortion pills, and a dozen packages that she was set to mail.

After several months of awaiting her fate, Wing was indicted on June 26. The indictment alleges that from June 2016 through June 2018, Wing conspired to defraud the United States by impeding lawful functions of federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies, and that from January 2018 through February 2018, Wing caused the introduction of unapproved, misbranded prescription drugs mifepristone and misoprostol into interstate commerce by sending the drugs from the state of New York to Wisconsin.

The indictment further alleges that Wing “illegally smuggled into the United States misbranded prescription drugs from India, which were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for distribution in the United States, and that she sold these misbranded prescription drugs to customers in the United States and around the world” and that she dispensed these prescription drugs without a valid license to do so.

There isn’t much precedent for this sort of thing. As Chelsea Conaboy notes for Mother Jones:

A New Jersey man was indicted in 2015 for importing and distributing prescription drugs, primarily erectile dysfunction pills but also mifepristone and misoprostol, but he died before the case was resolved. In 2010, a Virginia doctor who bought pills from a Chinese distributor to send to a family planning clinic in Mexico was sentenced to a one-year probation and fined $1,000.

People have, however, been prosecuted for self-managing their abortions. According to a report by If/When/How, since 1973, at least 21 people have been arrested for self-induced abortions in 20 states. They include Jennie Linn McCormack and Jennifer Whalen, who bought or were suspected of buying abortion pills online. McCormack’s case was dismissed, and Whalen served time in prison. And then there’s the egregious case involving Purvi Patel, who purchased abortion pills online and was sentenced to 41 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a dependent before a judge overturned her conviction, stating that she had already served enough time.

While uncertainty surrounds Wing’s prosecution, what is certain is that she wants more people to get involved in providing medication abortion kits to pregnant people who need them.

“I want some copycats,” she told Mother Jones. “There’s not enough people doing this.”

Wing’s arraignment was Thursday, in Madison, Wisconsin.

“Ms. Wing and I are working with the United States Attorney’s Office to resolve this case without a trial,” her attorney, Peter Moyers, told Rewire.News in an email.

“I am confident that we’ll reach an agreement that we can then present to the District Court for its approval. Criminal cases come in all shapes, sizes, and particulars. But the resolution process is constant. The government and the defense identify disputed issues and discuss what to do about them,” Moyers, a federal defender, said. “Sometimes those disputes are numerous and profound. Based on what the defense knows now, it appears the disputes in Wing’s case are few and mild.”

Anti-choice legislators have continued to put forth increasing restrictions on abortions, claiming an interest in the health and safety of patients. In reality, however, such restrictions are an attempt to ban medication abortion or at least interfere with the delivery of medication abortion services. And as more people like Ursula Wing decide to flout the law in order to provide medication abortion kits to women like McCormack and Whalen, we can expect more federal prosecutions.