Commentary Abortion

Our Greatest Fear Has Come to Pass: Coat-Hanger Abortions in Tennessee

Cherisse Scott

While we don’t know what would have brought Anna Yocca to self-induce, we can surmise what would bring a person to do so given what we know about the state of reproductive health care in Tennessee and the roles other factors, such as job security and health care, might play.

Think of a time when your back was against the wall. Maybe you had only one person to talk to or help you, and that person was struggling too. You had no resources. You had no options. You had no hope.

Now think about Anna Yocca, the Tennessee woman who reportedly tried to end an unwanted pregnancy in September with a coat hanger and was arrested and charged this month with attempted murder. Try to imagine what she might have faced before she filled the bathtub with warm water, picked up that hanger, and inserted it painfully into her vagina.

Women seeking abortion today in Tennessee face too many barriers. While we don’t know what would have brought Yocca to self-induce, we can surmise what would bring a person to do so given the state of reproductive health care in Tennessee and the roles other factors, such as job security and health care, might play. By putting ourselves in such a tenuous position, we can better understand why laws seeking to criminalize a health-care procedure do more harm than good, especially when it comes to groups already marginalized in our society.

Maybe she tried to raise money for a safe and legal abortion but couldn’t. Maybe her job pays a low wage, and like many fast-food workers fighting for $15 an hour, she could not afford the unpaid time off work for the appointment or the cost of the procedure. Maybe she knew her Medicaid would not cover the cost of the abortion because the Hyde Amendment does not allow it. Maybe she learned that something was wrong with the pregnancy and knew even then that the cost of her abortion would not be covered on that premise because of the passage of Amendment 1, which allows Tennessee legislators to ignore women’s self-determination and further regulate and restrict access to abortion care.

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Maybe she had no idea where or whom to turn to, to help her pay for an abortion. Maybe she talked to a local clinic where staff refused to give her a referral for the procedure because of their personal moral beliefs. Maybe she couldn’t find a Planned Parenthood that could help her because Republican-led efforts to defund the organization have created such a hostile environment in Tennessee that women are seeking out other options for terminations.

Maybe she was afraid of religious protesters who would videotape her or scream in her face, or worse, perpetrate violence against the clinic and its providers like we saw recently in Colorado. Maybe she read about the Georgia woman who ordered Cytotec (an abortion pill) online and almost went to prison for it. Maybe the new 48-hour waiting period law or numerous other medically unnecessary restrictions created too many obstacles for her to overcome. Or maybe her man didn’t want her to have the babya scenario reproductive rights activists often forget to include when talking about women seeking abortion care.

We can never fully understand another person’s unique circumstances: We don’t walk in their shoes. Whatever the reason, Yocca found herself in the bathtub, with a hanger and no other option. Now she’s being charged with attempted murder and it’s unclear what will happen to her son. A son whom she is now the mother of. This is a moment an anti-choice supporter might say that she should have still carried the baby to term, and this is the moment I say, then what? What is their plan for the baby now? Where is their support to provide for his now-mandatory medical care? Food? Shelter?

This is where I say from experience, don’t hold your breath, because anti-choice supporters won’t be there.

In passing law after law to push abortion out of reach, Tennessee lawmakers are failing pregnant people who choose to terminate, which is their constitutional right. For almost 20 years, the Tennessee legislature has been under conservative control and has had a devastating impact on the state’s women and families who are struggling to make ends meet. In the last five years alone, the legislature has made deep cuts in child-care assistance and comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education in schools. Mothers struggling with substance addiction can be prosecuted if they are found using drugs at the time of delivery, under the fetal assault law that works only to deter women from seeking the health care they need.

Moreover, it is harder than ever for low-income households to put food on the table. The poorest women and girls in this state have seen cuts to their food stamp benefits—even though many women in Tennessee work full time and still need food stamps to support their families from month to month. In 2010, Memphis was coined the “hunger capital of the United States” and five years later, our city is still working to provide food for thousands of Memphians, a consequence of unemployment, low wages, and poverty in this area.

Yocca’s arrest appears to be a striking indictment of failed public policy, and a precursor of things to come if we don’t reverse these trends. As we prepare for the 2016 legislative session, we at SisterReach already anticipate some manner of policy retaliation because of her situation.

Women will always need abortion care, so where are we supposed to go if every clinic is forced to close due to restrictive state and federal laws? Rural women without their own cars already face high barriers in transportation. Memphians face unreliable bus service just getting to work, the grocery store, or a general practitioner’s office—in the most urban area in Tennessee. Nevertheless, women have always done, and will continue to do, what they must to end a pregnancy.

A recent study conducted by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project surveyed 779 women ages 18 to 49 there and estimated that 100,000 to 240,000 women of reproductive age had attempted to end a pregnancy. My own personal and professional experiences tell me that many of those women probably did so because they had nowhere else to turn.

But Yocca and all of the women in Tennessee who have already made the choice to end a pregnancy, or are considering it, are more than mere statistics. They are real people who deserve compassion, protection, and resources.

They deserve reproductive justice.

Since last year, SisterReach and our partners have been trying to undo the harm of the state’s fetal assault law, which we know has the potential to cause women to end wanted pregnancies for fear they will be incarcerated for their drug addiction.

We cannot afford to think about or advocate for abortion without this broader context: Though pregnancy rates are going down in Memphis, due in part to the influx of free long-acting reversible contraception women and girls can access from several providers across the city, our sexually transmitted disease rates are on the rise. Young people do not have access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education across the state due to conservative ideology. And while the overall focus has been placed on teen pregnancy prevention, it is only part of a broader focus of comprehensive offerings imperative to young people’s ability to identify and navigate healthy and unhealthy relationships, survive, and thrive.

Memphis is among the hardest-hit areas in the country for new HIV infections among Black men who have sex with men, and yet there is no focus on Black women’s health—for the Black women who are the wives, girlfriends, and lovers of these same men who remain with them in order to hold positions of authority and survive under the judgmental gaze of those who are morally in conflict with other people’s lives and sexuality. Domestic violence shelters across the state are at capacity with no other alternative but to turn away women and children in desperate need of protection from violent partners. And currently, Memphis is wading through a backlog of rape kits dating back to the mid-1970s.

Women and girls in the state, and across the country, have lived experiences that might lead them to make the same choice as Anna Yocca. We must defend and uphold the human rights of Black women and women of color, young women, poor white women, rural women, HIV-positive women, trans men, and low-wage workers as we fight for safe, legal, and affordable abortion.

It is not the job of lawmakers, district attorneys, or health-care workers to police our bodies or pregnancies, or to inflict their personal religious beliefs onto our lives and futures. However, it is the job of Tennesseans to make sure women and girls have access to life- and health-affirming health care. As advocates, our job is to make sure that no woman on this side of the new millennium should fear arrest or incarceration for trying to end a pregnancy, experiencing a miscarriage, stillbirth, or for seeking medical treatment in any of these circumstances. It is our job to fight for justice for Anna Yocca, because she is our sister, mother, aunt, cousin, daughter, friend, and neighbor.

SisterReach is calling on everyone to stand with us and our co-laborers in Tennessee as we demand that the Rutherford County district attorney, the Tennessee legislature, and our fellow residents take a step back to look beyond the shock of what Yocca reportedly did and think about the conditions women and girls in Tennessee are forced to live under—to what kind of future we want for women and girls across Tennessee.

As a Black woman who knows exactly what a lack of abortion access before Roe meant for Black women, I cannot help but cringe at the thought of what tragedy we will face if Tennessee does not reconsider its position in interfering with women’s health-care decisions.

As we move deeper into a holiday season that admonishes all of us to have “peace on Earth” and “good will toward men,” I hope and pray that we broaden our scope of understanding to include all people, including Anna Yocca and every woman and girl like her.

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