In the days before legal abortion, one way that abortion opponents tried to curtail illegal abortions was to discover and arrest as many people as they could find who performed them. In some cases, patients who had undergone an illegal abortion would be forced to sit at a hospital, not receiving treatment until they gave up the name of the provider. In others, police would raid offices to threaten patients with crimes in order to get them to turn in the doctor.
Pro-life activists point to these occurrences as evidence that they never had or will have any intention to jail those who actually procure illegal abortions, but only use them to arrest illegal providers. “We’ve never called for punishment for the women who have abortions. To be brief, we consider the abortion to be a worse punishment than anyone deserves. What we want is to see the abortionists in jail, where they belong,” writes Priests for Life, who also says, “The pro-life position has always been that women are victimized by abortion. In fact, we have repeatedly rejected the suggestion that women should be put in jail, much less executed. Another aspect of this is the fact that before decriminalization, women weren’t indicted for having illegal abortions.”
The pregnant people “should never be put in jail, only the illegal provider” argument gets far more complicated, however, these days, where more illegal abortions take place via medication ordered off the internet than any other ways. With the availability of pills, patients becomes their own “illegal providers,” a circumstance that has already seen cases like Jennie McCormack, who was originally charged for “unlawful abortion” for inducing her own abortion but not being a doctor.
Without a provider to jail or fine, where are anti-choice prosecutors going to turn when it comes time to make sure someone is punished in the case of an illegal abortion, serving as a warning for others who also might seek out illegal means to terminate their own pregancy? The answer, as is becoming clear, is absolutely anyone who “assists” the pregnant person.
In this case, even her own mother.
Pennsylvania mother Jennifer Whalen is being charged with multiple crimes after allegedly purchasing drugs off the internet and giving them to her then 16-year-old pregnant daughter, who wanted an abortion. Whalen said she purchased the drugs after being unable to find a clinic close enough to have a legal abortion and not wanting to take her daughter out of state to obtain one (based on her location, the likely nearest clinic would have been in New York state).
Whalen has been charged with “felony count of medical consultation and judgment and misdemeanor charges of unlawful acts – not licensed as a pharmacist, endangering the welfare of a child and simple assault,” according to one news report. The charges themselves are horrifying — after all, helping your daughter end a pregnancy she doesn’t want surely isn’t “endangering the welfare of a child” or “simple assault” any more than forcing her to continue a pregnancy against her will would be. What is just as disturbing is the fact that the termination occurred in January of 2012, but the complaint wasn’t issued until December of 2013, nearly two years later.
Why such a delay? According to National Right to Life News, which accesses a behind paywall article about the charges, “[I]t took nearly two years to file charges because the case was unusual and investigators had to research the drugs involved and other elements of the situation.”
In other words, they had to work to find something to charge her with.
It was the same for McCormack. The prosecutor admitted that although the unlawful abortion charge wasn’t usually used for self-abortion, he chose it because “It just fit the statute,” and that he felt that “she was obviously getting pregnant time and time again and not protecting the unborn fetus.” In many ways, this accusation of “endangerment” and “assault” is the same — a crime to charge a mother for not doing the “motherly” thing and convincing her child to carry the pregnancy to term.
Anti-choice advocates already have a complicated circumstantial relationship with a parent’s role in a minor’s abortion decision. On the one hand, a parent should be able to overrule a child if the child wants to end a pregnancy, yet on the other hand a child is considered an independent autonomous adult if she wishes to continue it without parental support. Now, a parent is being charged with a felony for helping her daughter abort. It’s an obvious attempt to signal that any person can be arrested and punished whenever an illegal abortion is discovered.
With clinics closing across the country, illegal medication abortions are and will continue to be a growing reality. This latest case is a red flag that anyone can be arrested as aiding a patient, regardless of age or relationship. That doesn’t mean less abortions. It just means that the practice will go further underground, making it more isolated for the person terminating the pregnancy and inevitably more dangerous as she grows even more fearful about bringing legal repercussions on herself and anyone who may find out about it.
This is the new post-Roe America, where abortion is legal in name for so many, regardless of what the courts say otherwise.
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