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Woman Jailed, Ostracized After Resorting to Self-Administered Abortion: What Is This, Puritan America?

Jennie McCormack, a resident of Idaho and a mother of three, has spent the past few months of her life in a legal and social situation that calls to mind the trials of Hester Pyrnne, the heroine of The Scarlet LetterAs reported by Nancy Hass of Newsweek, McCormack’s ordeal started when she learned she was pregnant by a man who was doing time for robbery.

Realizing that she couldn’t afford another baby, nor the $500 fee and two trips to get an abortion (because Idaho requires women to wait 24 hours after their first visit to the doctor to “think it over”), McCormack resorted to buying RU-486 from a vendor online. The police eventually arrested McCormack and charged her with an illegal abortion, claiming that she was over Idaho’s legal limit of 20 weeks for an abortion. Since the exact gestational age can’t be determined, charges have been dropped for now, but prosecutors are retaining the right to re-charge McCormack. In the meantime, she’s become a pariah in her community, been fired from her job, and even had to face social workers who are basically denying her aid to care for her children.  

Even in super-liberal New York City, a woman is being prosecuted (albeit in a less drastic way) for a self-abortion after the legal limit. The desperate woman, accused of aborting after six months, threw the fetus in a trash can, presumably because she was not aware of her other options for disposing of it.  

In the United States, abortion is technically a legal right, but as these cases show, it’s not functionally a right. If abortion were actually a right, women wouldn’t have such a difficult time getting a legal abortion that they resort to drastic measures that land them in jail. These cases demonstrate why abortion needs to be more than a right for those who have the means to jump through all the hoops put in place to keep them from obtaining legal abortions. Making sure women who want abortions can get them in a timely and safe fashion helps more than the women in question. We all do better if women can get the abortions that are supposedly their right.  

Abortion’s long descent from being a true right to being only a technical right began in 1976, when Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortion. Once you needed to be able to get the cash together to pay for an abortion, it stopped really being a right and instead became a commodity, out of reach of those who often need it the most. Since then, anti-choice activists have been chipping away at access to abortion, putting up legal restrictions that usually cost time and money to get around, and now even moving to prevent insurance companies from covering abortion, expanding the number of women whose access is limited because they can’t afford it.  

In the anti-choice imagination, the only people who pay for this are women who want abortions, whom anti-choicers generally believe deserve to suffer for not “keeping their legs closed,” to quote a favorite colloquialism of the anti-choice set. In reality, women’s lack of access to affordable, safe abortion hurts all of us, and not just those who accidentally find a fetus abandoned in a trash can by a woman who had simply run out of legal, safe options. When women who want abortions can’t afford them, they often go on to have the baby, instead. In the short term, that means higher costs for Medicaid and other social welfare programs. But there’s also long-term costs to all of us. Having children they don’t feel ready to have often limits women’s employment and educational opportunities, depriving society of their talents and labor. If women can’t have children until they’re ready, they’re often limited in their abilities to educate and care for those children as well as they’d like to, which increases the burden for everyone. 

Criminalizing women who need abortion care just makes the situation exponentially worse, as Jennie McCormack’s situation demonstrates. So far, her brush with the legal system has been devastating for her entire family. She has three small children to take care of, but because she’s been "outed," she can’t hold down a job that would help feed and house them. If Idaho successfully prosecutes her and sends her to jail, that would leave her three children without any parents to care for them. This tragedy could have been averted. If there were no Hyde Amendment and Medicaid paid for abortion, and if there weren’t a bunch of useless legal restrictions on abortion, McCormack could have aborted her pregnancy in a timely fashion, leaving her free to get a job and take care of her kids. Instead, there’s a strong possibility that she’ll be forced to abandon her children, and all because she couldn’t access an abortion that was supposed to be her legal right.  

Women who need abortions aren’t some foreign creatures whose wellbeing can be sacrificed so politicians can score points in the culture war. They’re mothers, wives, workers, students, volunteers. When we deprive women of access to abortion, shun them from society, and even throw them in jail for taking matters into their own hands, we as a society become weaker. The Jennie McCormacks of the world are trying to live up to their responsibilities. Putting restrictions on abortion only serves to make that impossible for them.

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