In 2014, Jennifer Whalen, a nursing home aide, was sentenced to between 12 and 18 months in jail. Her crime? Trying to obtain medication abortion pills for her teenage daughter, who was facing an unwanted pregnancy. Whalen, who was charged with “performing an illegal abortion,” bought the pills online because the nearest clinic from her home was 75 miles away, and because Pennsylvania has a 24-hour mandated waiting period requiring patients to make two visits to a clinic to obtain an abortion. Without health insurance, and facing loss of income from time off, the costs—of two round-trips to the clinic, a possible overnight stay in Harrisburg, and the procedure itself—became insurmountable. Out of desperation, Whalen turned to the Internet.
Whalen was arrested for a simple reason: Her daughter was pregnant and did not want to be.
Earlier this week, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump asserted that women who have abortions should face “some form of punishment.” He since “walked it back,” political parlance for being too honest or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. In response to his initial statement, however, the GOP and leaders of anti-choice groups collectively fell all over themselves criticizing Trump for what they declared to be a position outside the “mainstream” of their movement. Their outcry was political theater at its most insidious: Anti-choice leaders know that their real intentions—to ban abortion and punish women who have them—is a deeply unpopular opinion. So they feign concern for women by talking about “safety,” and “caring,” and “life.” No matter how much they dissemble, however, there is only one reality: The laws and policies pushed by the anti-choice movement and the politicians it supports already punish women both explicitly and implicitly, including by sending them to prison.
The anti-choice movement seeks to punish women through a web of entrapment that, spun just a little bit at a time, harms women in ways that are less noticeable to the rest of us because they don’t make headlines until women start ending up in jail.
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First, anti-choice legislators pass laws to mandate medically unnecessary waiting periods, driving up the costs of abortion care and insulting the intelligence of women who don’t need to be told to wait to figure out how to deal with their own realities. Then, they pass laws to require clinics to mimic ambulatory surgical centers, though abortion is among the safest procedures a person can obtain and there is no reason not to do them in a clinic. This forces many clinics to close because providers can’t recoup the costs of medically unnecessary building renovations, and in turn it leaves women in large swaths of a state without access to care. Then, having cut off many avenues to legal safe abortion care, lawmakers pass laws to make medication abortion inaccessible, again on medically unnecessary grounds. They also pass laws mandating that only doctors can perform abortions, even though nurses and nurse practitioners are perfectly capable of being trained to perform early abortions safely and effectively, as well as to administer medication abortion. Finally, they pass laws making self-induced abortion a crime. Put these together and the anti-choice movement has made a safe, legal abortion virtually impossible to obtain. So when, in desperation, women go to any length to end an unintended pregnancy, legislators punish them further by making them criminals and putting them into jail.
It should not be surprising then that in many states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Utah, where a raft of laws similar to those mentioned above have been passed, women are taking matters into their own hands and paying the price of anti-choice laws. For example, a recent study estimated that in Texas, where abortion access has been severely limited as a result of the omnibus legislation known as HB 2, between 100,000 and 240,000 women have attempted to self-induce. Many of these women, already vulnerable because they are poor or undocumented or are made subject to racial profiling, are policed every day at medical centers and at border crossings where they go to seek medication to terminate a pregnancy. Medication that, by the way, taken correctly is completely safe and could be used for self-induction were it legal.
Women who attempt to self-induce abortion are now routinely charged with crimes. In Georgia, Kenlissia Jones was arrested in 2015 for allegedly using misoprostol to self-induce her abortion. Jones was originally facing two charges: “malice murder” and “possession of a dangerous drug” (i.e. the misoprostol). The murder charge against Jones was dropped, but she still faces punishment for the drug charge. That same year in Arkansas a nurse, Karen Collins, was arrested and faced the charge of “performing an unlicensed abortion” (a class D felony in her state) for allegedly providing a drug to a woman that would allow her to terminate her pregnancy. And in Tennessee, Anna Yocca was charged with attempted murder for a failed self-induced abortion attempt with a coat hanger. Prosecutors later dropped the attempted murder charge but said they would still pursue criminal charges against Yocca, likely for aggravated assault.
These cases are the product of anti-choice laws promoted relentlessly by Americans United for Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, the National Right to Life Committee, the Family Research Council, and others. The fact that the use of these laws to harass, frighten, indict, and imprison women is never protested by anti-choice groups tells you everything you need to know about the movement’s intentions. Punishment.
Moreover, those who seek to outlaw abortion are forever finding new and creative ways to punish women. Feticide laws, for example, were ostensibly created to allow for the prosecution of third-party actors who were violent toward pregnant women and, in turn, harmed a fetus. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states now have feticide or “fetal homicide” laws on the books, and in 23 of these states, these laws can be applied at any stage of pregnancy. While these laws were not originally created with the intent of criminalizing pregnant women for actions they took during their own pregnancy, they are now widely used to do just that. “Pro-life” prosecutors are arresting and indicting women under such laws when they deem that either an action or lack of action by a pregnant woman causes harm to a fetus or leads to pregnancy loss. In fact, these are de facto fetal “personhood” laws of the kind promoted by anti-choice organizations such as Susan B. Anthony List.
There is Bei Bei Shuai, who was charged with murder and attempted feticide for attempting suicide while pregnant. Shuai sat in jail for 435 days until she was released on bail (where she remained under surveillance by an electronic ankle monitor). In August 2013, nearly two and a half years after her prosecution began, she accepted a plea deal to the misdemeanor charge of “criminal recklessness.”
There is Purvi Patel, who was charged with neglect of a dependent and feticide after having a pregnancy loss that the state deemed was a self-induced abortion. She is currently serving a 41-year sentence while her case is on appeal. In three states—Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota—laws on the books allow for the involuntary civil commitment of pregnant women for “not following doctors’ orders.” Recent cases in which these laws were applied include those of Alicia Beltran and Tamara Loertscher in Wisconsin. As ProPublica has noted in “How States Handle Drug Use During Pregnancy,” hundreds and potentially thousands of women in three states—Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee—have faced criminal prosecution under “chemical endangerment laws” that allow for the criminal prosecution of drug use during pregnancy. The anti-choice movement has pushed for and supported these laws.
This is not punishment?
And then consider AJ, a woman on whose case we reported earlier this week. AJ’s teenage daughter became pregnant. Her teacher somehow insinuated herself into the daughter’s decision-making process. Unbenownst to her mother, the teacher called another person, a stranger to this teen, who took her to a so-called crisis pregnancy center, at which the young woman was pressured under threat of “hell and damnation” to sign a document stating she did not want an abortion. These anti-choicers sent the document, containing a raft of personal information including address and social security number, to clinics and police stations in the surrounding area. When AJ’s daughter later decided, after confiding in her mother, that she did in fact want to terminate the pregnancy, they went to a clinic in Memphis, Tennessee. There, AJ found herself threatened with arrest for feticide for “coercing” her daughter to have an abortion. While there was no substance to this charge, the whole episode frightened a teen and her mom and further delayed her abortion. There are several layers of “punishment” here, including frightening a young woman with lies, tricking her into signing a bogus legal document, seeking to get her to delay the abortion until it was too late, and then threatening to arrest her mother.
There are innumerable other ways in which the anti-choice movement is actively punishing women, by, for example, supporting monitoring and harassment of women outside clinics and hospitals, making immigrant women fear arrest, and denying women access to abortion for severe fetal and developmental anomalies while slashing state funding of support for children who are severely disabled.
I could go on. The fact that these laws and policies are passed and employed throughout the country, that they infantalize, criminalize, and otherwise treat women as children without agency is part of an overall agenda aimed at punishing women and is becoming deeply entrenched in the U.S. legal system as a direct result of the advocacy of anti-choice groups.
The anti-choice movement is built on lies. And those lies continue to be perpetuated both by its leaders, and by a media unable, unwilling, or too self-absorbed and preoccuppied with access to politicians to actually understand and report on what is happening throughout the country.