Analysis Abortion

Pennsylvania Woman Arrested for Ordering Daughter Abortion-Inducing Pills Online

Tara Murtha

The logical outcome of the current anti-choice strategy is arrests of pregnant women and the people who try to help them: Coerce women into the black market by reducing the number of legal abortion providers, and then leave them to the prosecutors.

In January 2012, a 16-year-old girl living in central Pennsylvania discovered she was pregnant. She wanted to end the pregnancy, but didn’t know where to go. She lived in Montour, the smallest county in Pennsylvania, which, like 97 percent of all non-metropolitan counties in the country, doesn’t have an abortion provider.

Pennsylvania mandates that people under 18 get parental approval before receiving an abortion. In this case, the girl did what the state wants teens in her situation to do: She turned to her mother.

Her mom, Jennifer Whalen, allegedly ordered abortion pills off the Internet.

From the Press Enterprise:

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Whalen couldn’t find a local abortion clinic, and she didn’t want to take her daughter out of state. Whalen found an overseas drugstore online that sold abortion drugs, so she ordered a package for about $45.

Whalen did not obtain a prescription because she didn’t know one was needed. One drug was to be taken orally, while the other was to be used vaginally 24 hours after the first drug. Upon taking the second drug, the girl immediately began menstruating.

Two weeks later, the girl experienced “severe abdominal pain.” Whelan took her to the hospital, where she was treated for incomplete abortion and a UTI.

Whalen’s reasoning about traveling out of state indicates that perhaps she wasn’t aware that she had any options in Pennsylvania. The closest clinic to her home was in Harrisburg, about 75 miles away. A state-mandated 24-hour waiting period would mean Whalen and her daughter would have had to make the drive twice, or they would have had to stay overnight in the Harrisburg area.

Almost one-third of Pennsylvania’s abortion clinics have closed since 2012, when conservative state lawmakers passed abortion clinic regulations mandating expensive architectural changes, despite the protests of relevant medical groups in the wake of the Kermit Gosnell case.

While the Gosnell grand jury report indicated that the rogue provider was able to operate undetected as a result of lawmakers treating abortion as a political issue rather than a public health one, the response of the state legislature was to further politicize abortion.

We already know that the more anti-choice politicians—many of them higher-income men—treat abortion as a partisan litmus test and a “family values” signifier, the more women who need safe abortion service suffer.

The Whalen case reveals we’re at a tipping point in Pennsylvania: The politicization of abortion ultimately means the criminalization of pregnancy.

According to reports, two weeks after Whalen’s daughter, now 18, took the pills, she experienced severe abdominal pain. They went to the local hospital to be examined. According to the district attorney, both Whalen and the teen admitted the teen took the pills.

A doctor at the hospital called the police, setting in motion a case that would lead to her eventual arrest, in December 2013.

Mail-Order Abortions

Study after study shows that restricting access to safe, legal abortions by outlawing the procedure or, as is the preferred method in the United States, implementing geographic, logistical and financial barriers, doesn’t result in fewer unplanned pregnancies or abortions.

Neither strategy reduces the need for safe abortion. They both result in women seeking abortion through other, unregulated and often unsafe means. That is one of the main reasons pre-Roe pro-choice advocates argued for regulations.

Before Roe v. Wade in 1973, a black-market abortion meant a back-alley abortion. Today, women who need an abortion but can’t access one don’t have to make appointments with illegal providers. Abortion pills can be ordered online 24 hours a day and discreetly shipped from overseas pharmacies to your door. Modern black-market abortions take place at home.

Though it may be scary, swallowing pills ordered online is arguably less terrifying than allowing a stranger to insert metal tools into your body. It’s cheaper, too: Whalen purchased her pills for $45.

While no one knows how many online outlets sell these pills—usually a mix of misoprostol and mifepristone—a 2011 Newsweek article about Jennie Linn McCormack, an Idaho woman who was arrested for self-inducing an abortion with pills purchased online, noted that “the proliferation of sites providing the drugs coincides with the pro-life movement’s highly effective protests and attacks on physicians, clinics and healthcare groups that offer abortions.”

The “pro-life” movement has indeed been highly effective in Pennsylvania. The virulently anti-choice Americans United for Life consistently praises Pennsylvania lawmakers for “[leading] the way for other states.” After watching similar legislation close one-third of Texas’ clinics, Reps. Brian Cutler (R-Lancaster) and Bryan Barbin (D-Cambria) re-introduced an admitting privileges bill in Pennsylvania.

While state politicians follow Texas’ blueprint, there’s every reason to believe that Pennsylvania women will follow Texans’ footsteps. Anecdotal evidence indicates that women in Texas travel to Mexico for abortion pills, which also have been sold at local flea markets.

There’s no way to know how many women are already ordering abortion pills—or self-medicating through insulin or psychiatric meds for that matter—online. The sales are by definition unregulated. We are, however, starting to see how women will be punished when they self-induce—or, as in this case, if they order abortion-inducing pills for someone else.

New Legal Territory

The Whalen case ventures into uncharted legal territory: Rebecca Warren, the Montour County district attorney, spent nearly two years reviewing state statutes to figure out what charges to bring in the case.

Whalen has been charged with medical consultation, unlawfully dispensing medicine, endangering the welfare of a child, and simple assault. Medical consultation is a third-degree felony. “The allegations are that she performed an abortion,” Warren told Rewire.

The county applied an assault charge, because Whalen “attempted to cause or intentionally knowingly or recklessly cause bodily injury to another.” The bodily injury, Warren explained, was the abdominal cramps.

“However wise or unwise the particular course of action may have been, it’s just bad for families and bad for health to address this through the criminal justice system,” said Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “This prosecutor has discretion, and it should be used not to try to find a way to arrest this family, but to … say, ‘Why would a family not go to health-care providers?’”

Paltrow views the Whalen case as an “attempt to try to find a way to use the courts to expand the power of police and prosecutors to surveil and punish women and families in a context in which they have less and less access to the health care they need.”

Though formal attempts to outlaw abortion have historically focused on arresting abortion providers, the logical outcome of the incremental strategy is arrests of pregnant women (and the people who try to help them): Coerce women into the black market by reducing the number of legal abortion providers, and then leave them to the prosecutors.

Will the arrest have a cooling effect on women who seek medical care after taking pills?

“I would hope it would not,” said District Attorney Warren. “And obviously there are ways to secure an abortion that are safe and legal in Pennsylvania.”

It’s just that there are increasingly fewer and fewer ways.

If convicted on all counts, Whalen could face up to 15 years in prison.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

News Abortion

Study: Telemedicine Abortion Care a Boon for Rural Patients

Nicole Knight

Despite the benefits of abortion care via telemedicine, 18 states have effectively banned the practice by requiring a doctor to be physically present.

Patients are seen sooner and closer to home in clinics where medication abortion is offered through a videoconferencing system, according to a new survey of Alaskan providers.

The results, which will be published in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, suggest that the secure and private technology, known as telemedicine, gives patients—including those in rural areas with limited access—greater choices in abortion care.

The qualitative survey builds on research that found administering medication abortion via telemedicine was as safe and effective as when a doctor administers the abortion-inducing medicine in person, study researchers said.

“This study reinforces that medication abortion provided via telemedicine is an important option for women, particularly in rural areas,” said Dr. Daniel Grossman, one of the authors of the study and professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). “In Iowa, its introduction was associated with a reduction in second-trimester abortion.”

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Maine and Minnesota also provide medication abortion via telemedicine. Clinics in four states—New York, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington—are running pilot studies, as the Guardian reported. Despite the benefits of abortion care via telemedicine, 18 states have effectively banned the practice by requiring a doctor to be physically present.

The researchers noted that even “greater gains could be made by providing [medication abortion] directly to women in their homes,” which U.S. product labeling doesn’t allow.

In late 2013, researchers with Ibis Reproductive Health and Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health interviewed providers, such as doctors, nurses, and counselors, in clinics run by Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands that were using telemedicine to provide medication abortion. Providers reported telemedicine’s greatest benefit was to pregnant people. Clinics could schedule more appointments and at better hours for patients, allowing more to be seen earlier in pregnancy.

Nearly twenty-one percent of patients nationwide end their pregnancies with medication abortion, a safe and effective two-pill regime, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alaska began offering the abortion-inducing drugs through telemedicine in 2011. Patients arrive at a clinic, where they go through a health screening, have an ultrasound, and undergo informed consent procedures. A doctor then remotely reviews the patients records and answers questions via a videoconferencing link, before instructing the patient on how to take the medication.

Before 2011, patients wanting abortion care had to fly to Anchorage or Seattle, or wait for a doctor who flew into Fairbanks twice a month, according to the study’s authors.

Beyond a shortage of doctors, patients in Alaska must contend with vast geography and extreme weather, as one physician told researchers:

“It’s negative seven outside right now. So in a setting like that, [telemedicine is] just absolutely the best possible thing that you could do for a patient. … Access to providers is just so limited. And … just because you’re in a state like that doesn’t mean that women aren’t still as much needing access to these services.”

“Our results were in line with other research that has shown that this service can be easily integrated into other health care offered at a clinic, can help women access the services they want and need closer to home, and allows providers to offer high-level care to women from a distance,” Kate Grindlay, lead author on the study and associate at Ibis Reproductive Health, said in a statement.


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