Hobby Lobby is the Oklahoma-based chain of craft stores that is challenging the Affordable Care Act (ACA), claiming that the health-care reform law violates the corporation’s free exercise of religion by requiring it to provide their employees with a health plan that covers the intrauterine device (IUD) and oral contraceptive pills. Hobby Lobby asserts, without medical foundation, that these contraceptive are really abortifacients.
While Hobby Lobby opposes offering contraceptive coverage, it does sell three types of knitting needles: single point, circular, and double point needles, ranging in size from 0 to 50. The needles come in a wide variety of colors and materials (including wood, plastic, bamboo, acrylic, and aluminum). They range in price from $2.59 to $13.99.
This is worth noting because, in the not-so-distant past, women who became pregnant and didn’t have access to legal abortion used a variety of objects, including wire coat hangers and knitting needles, to try and end their pregnancies themselves.
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One of these women was Marla Elaine Pitchford, a 22-year-old white woman from Scottsville, Kentucky. The year wasn’t 1950, or 1960, or even early 1973 before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. It was June of 1978, five years after the Supreme Court recognized in Roe that women have a fundamental right to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy to term.
According to numerous media reports, Ms. Pitchford was a religiously observant Southern Baptist for whom the idea of an abortion was repugnant. When she became pregnant, the predominant emotion she felt was shame. The only person she eventually told was her boyfriend, Dwight Mundy, who refused to marry her, and urged her to have an abortion.
Ms. Pitchford and Mr. Mundy visited an abortion clinic together. The clinic informed her that she was too far along in her pregnancy to obtain an abortion anywhere in the state. Ms. Pitchford later explained:
When I was examined they told me I was 24 weeks pregnant. Too late to have an abortion. I thought I was only 18 to 20 weeks at the most. I was upset and scared. The only place I could go that late in a pregnancy was New York, Kansas City or Atlanta. I had no more money and couldn’t afford that. I went back to my hotel room. I was very upset and crying. I had no way out. I felt like dying. The next morning when I got up, I thought I could give myself an abortion. So I put a plastic knitting needle in my uterus.
In her own words, Ms. Pitchford was “just desperate for a way out.” She didn’t tell anyone about what she had done, including her boyfriend.
As a result of this self-abortion attempt, she developed a high fever and became seriously ill. Her boyfriend thought she was miscarrying and took her the hospital.
At the hospital, Ms. Pitchford was given a labor-inducing drug. She delivered a stillborn child. She also delivered a six-inch, white plastic knitting needle that was embedded in the placenta. The delivery room staff notified the coroner who then alerted the police. Two days later, Ms. Pitchford woke up with two police officers at her bedside who were there to interrogate her.
Ms. Pitchford was arrested and charged with manslaughter and performing an illegal abortion. A court eventually dismissed the manslaughter charge, but the illegal abortion charge—with a possible sentence of ten to 20 years of incarceration—remained.
Compared to women who died from self-abortion, Ms. Pitchford was lucky; she lived. She survived her desperate self-abortion attempt and had the help of a dedicated public defender. Grounds existed to challenge the application of the state’s abortion law to the pregnant woman herself. Her attorney, however, believed that her client was too emotionally fragile to endure years of uncertainty while the case worked its way through the courts. They opted for a jury trial at which her attorney argued that Ms. Pitchford was temporarily insane when she attempted the abortion.
The strategy worked. After deliberating for barely an hour, the jury acquitted Ms. Pitchford.
Today, abortion clinics are being shut down and well-financed corporations are fighting to deny women health coverage for contraception and abortion services. Women who become pregnant and want to end those pregnancies have options other than the knitting needles that were often used before Roe, and sometimes after. For example, the drug, misoprostol, when taken correctly, has an 85 to 90 percent effectiveness rate in safely ending an early pregnancy. That is, if it can be obtained and if women aren’t arrested for using it. Meanwhile, as abortion becomes less and less accessible and more and more stigmatized, no one should be surprised to find women once again using knitting needles to end their pregnancies.
On March 25, lawyers for Hobby Lobby will argue their case before the United States Supreme Court. If Hobby Lobby wins, more women will experience unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. At the oral argument, I hope at least one of the justices will ask whether the corporation, if it wins its lawsuit, plans to stop selling knitting needles to the employees who lose their contraceptive coverage and become pregnant.
The author wishes to thank Katherine Jack, JD, for her research documenting the Marla Elaine Pitchford case.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly noted the date of the Supreme Court hearing. It will be held on March 25. We regret the error.