News Law and Policy

Tennessee Woman Released From Jail After Pleading Guilty in Self-Induced Abortion Case

Imani Gandy

“[A]t at time when much of the country is taking more seriously the need for criminal justice reform, the prosecution of Anna Yocca indicates a larger trend in the punishment and incarceration of women in Tennessee,” said Nancy Rosenbloom, NAPW’s director of legal advocacy.

Anna Yocca, the Tennessee woman accused of using a coat hanger to try to terminate her pregnancy, pleaded guilty on Monday to attempted procurement of a miscarriage—a class E felony in Tennessee—and was released from custody with time served.

Prosecutors indicted Yocca in December 2015 for illegally attempting to end her pregnancy. Yocca allegedly filled a bathtub with water, sat in it, took a coat hanger, and attempted to abort her pregnancy, prosecutors said. Yocca reportedly bled heavily during the attempt, at which point her boyfriend rushed her to the hospital.

Medical professionals at Saint Thomas Midtown Hospital in Nashville delivered a 1.5-pound infant. The baby survived, was placed into foster care, and was later adopted.

Hospital staff alerted law enforcement officials after, they said, Yocca made “disturbing statements” to them about trying to terminate her pregnancy. Yocca was arrested and confined to the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center. She remained there without a trial or conviction for more than a year, according to a press release issued by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW).

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After Yocca was arrested, a grand jury indicted her for first-degree attempted murder. Yocca’s bond was set for $200,000, which she was unable to pay, according to NAPW.

Yocca’s defense attorney Gerald Melton last February was able to get the attempted murder charge dismissed. Yocca was then re-indicted for aggravated fetal assault under a Tennessee law that passed in 2014 but expired on July 1, 2016.

That law, SB 1391, amended Tennessee’s fetal homicide law to allow a woman to be prosecuted for the illegal use of a narcotic while pregnant if her child is born addicted or harmed as a result of the use of narcotics during pregnancy. The bill called for a maximum penalty of 15 years for people who experience pregnancy complications after using illegal drugs.

As a result of opposition to the law and evidence that it was ineffective in dealing with the health issues it was meant to address—primarily opioid abuse by pregnant people—Tennessee legislators in March 2016 voted to let the law expire, according to NAPW’s press release.

In November, a Rutherford County grand jury charged Yocca with aggravated assault with a weapon, attempted procurement of a miscarriage, and attempted criminal abortion. The latter two charges were enacted in the 19th century, yet remain on the books in Tennessee.

Rather than spend any more time in jail, Yocca pleaded guilty to attempted procurement of a miscarriage and was released with time served, according to NAPW.

“Today, after more than a year in jail, in order to win immediate release Ms. Yocca pleaded guilty to attempted procurement of a miscarriage despite the fact that it is unconstitutional and a violation of international human rights principles to use this vague statute to punish women and new mothers for their pregnancies and the outcomes of those pregnancies,” Lynn Paltrow, executive director of NAPW, said in a statement.

SB 1391 was an attempt by the Tennessee legislature to reduce the number of children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a group of problems that occur in newborns who are exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs in utero.

There was no evidence that Anna Yocca was had illegally used narcotics, but prosecutors charged her anyway.

Anti-choice advocates insist that their intention is not to criminalize abortion care or to punish people who have legal abortions. Yet in states across the country—Purvi Patel and Bei Bei Shuai in Indiana, Amanda Kimbrough and Hope Ankrom in Alabama, for example—people are being jailed for bad pregnancy outcomes.

“[A]t at time when much of the country is taking more seriously the need for criminal justice reform, the prosecution of Anna Yocca indicates a larger trend in the punishment and incarceration of women in Tennessee,” said Nancy Rosenbloom, NAPW’s director of legal advocacy.

Abortion care is strictly regulated in Tennessee, which has “informed consent” provisions that must be met before a person can obtain an abortion, along with a 48-hour waiting period.

In 2014, Tennessee voters approved a ballot measure that established that the Tennessee State Constitution could not be interpreted to provide any protection for women who have abortions. The state’s GOP-held legislature has since pushed through a slew of anti-choice measures.

Alison Glass, state director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, said in a statement that “96 percent of Tennessee counties—where a majority of the state’s women live—have no abortion providers. Women in Tennessee must get state-prescribed, in-person counseling from the abortion provider, wait 48 hours, then come back for the procedure.”

Rutherford County, where Yocca lives, is one of the counties without an abortion provider.

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