Yaribely Almonte, a 20-year-old mother of one, has been charge with the crime of “self-abortion” after a landlord found what is believed to be a 24 week old fetus in a garbage dumpster outside of her old apartment building. According to multiple reports, Almonte stated that she had “taken an herbal tea before delivering the baby, who was stillborn.”
“Self-abortion” is a fairly rarely used charge that seems to be growing in popularity in the last year. Idaho woman Jennie McCormack was accused of self-abortion after purchasing drugs to induce a miscarriage last December, a case which has now resulted in a lawsuit against the state’s restrictions on medical abortions. And Bei Bei Shuai of Indiana is currently being held without bail, being charge with feticide after ingesting rat poison in a failed suicide attempt that inadvertently caused the premature delivery and death of her baby at 31 weeks.
It’s so far unclear whether Almonte took the tea intending to cause a miscarriage, if the act was accidental, or if the tea and the miscarriage were utterly unrelated events. Yet that hasn’t stopped the New York police from charging her with a first degree crime because the fetus was 24 weeks old.
It is those unclear questions, which in many ways cannot be proven, that leads most “self-abortion” cases to just be dismissed, as the New York Times reports. “The state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services said that since 1980, four other women had been charged with self-abortion in the first degree or in the second degree, a lesser charge that can apply when the attempt is not successful. Three of those cases, from Nassau County in 2006 and 2010 and from Monroe County in 2000, ended in dismissal. A first-degree case in Wayne County in 2006 resulted in a sentence of conditional discharge, meaning the charge would be dismissed if the woman did not get into trouble again.”
Yet the actual pressing of charges against these women, and a push to keep them in jail, is dramatically increasing, a significant change since the past. According to WNYC, “Legal experts say it’s likely prosecutors have simply declined to prosecute on this charge in many occasions over the decades. ‘Prosecutors exercise a certain discretion in terms of whether to charge crimes like this because it usually arises out of some desperate circumstances,’ said Jim Cohen, a professor of criminal law at Fordham Law School.”
So why have prosecutors decided to suddenly start punishing these women to the fullest extent they can, even if they can’t be completely sure that each one even meant to abort or that charges might have to be dropped in the long run? Simple. To publicly shame the women who do find themselves so desperate that they take measures into their own hands, and to let it serve as a warning to others, especially low income and immigrant women, that if they try to do the same, they will be punished, too.
Anti-choice activists are often asked what punishment a woman should face for aborting a fetus, and they always respond that it should be the doctor, not the woman, who is jailed. Perhaps that is finally changing, too.
Photo by Olek Remesz via Wikimedia Commons