Jailed for not being able to afford an abortion clinic

Like many discriminatory laws, the US states that are criminalizing abortion and even miscarriage primarily affect women at the lower end of the economic ladder. Recently in  Pennsylvania a young women was unable to afford the combined travel or direct costs necessary to perform her abortion. The result is that her mother, Jennifer Whalen, is in jail  for buying medication to help her daughter.

On Sept. 12th, Jennifer Whalen, a 39-year-old mother of three in the rural town of Washingtonville, Pa., went to jail to begin serving a 9-to-18-month sentence. Whalen’s crime was, in effect, ordering pills online that her older daughter took in the first several weeks of an unplanned pregnancy, when she was 16, to induce a miscarriage. The medication was a combination of mifepristone (formerly called RU-486) and misoprostol. The drugs have been available from a doctor with a prescription in the United States since 2000 and are used around the world to induce miscarriage….

Whalen told me that in the winter of 2012, her daughter came to her and said she was pregnant. Whalen told her she would “support her in any decision she made.” Her daughter, who was in high school, took a few days to think and then asked her mother for help ending the pregnancy. “She said, ‘I can’t have a baby right now,’ and she asked me to look up clinics,” Whalen said.

Together, they looked online. The closest clinic was about 75 miles away. Pennsylvania requires women seeking abortions to first receive counseling and wait 24 hours before returning for the procedure. The cost of a first-trimester abortion is typically between $300 and $600. Whalen works as a personal-care aide at an assisted-living center for the elderly. She didn’t have health insurance for her daughter. And she was worried about taking time away from work and her family to make two trips or to stay overnight. At the time, Whalen and her husband shared one car, which they both used to get to work. And she hadn’t told her husband about the pregnancy. “I knew he would be upset, and I was protecting the whole family,” she said.

In the end, she purchased the drugs on-line at a cost or $45. After taking the pills, her daughter began bleeding and developed cramps, so they went to the local hospital. No action was taken and the daughter returned to school in a few days.

Soon after the visit to the emergency room, Whalen woke one morning to a knock on the door. Her husband was still in bed. Whalen got up and found the police outside. They had a warrant to search the house, and they found the empty box for the abortion medication. “They asked me whether I bought the pills online,” Whalen said. “I was surprised when they told me I had to have a doctor’s scrip. I didn’t know that.”

At the sentencing, the judge declared:

“A practitioner might be able to perform this, but a lay person is not permitted to take this kind of responsibility which is a huge responsibility.” The judge went on, “This was somebody taking life and law into their own hands.”

The judge omitted to recognize that the restrictions placed on abortions pushed this family into making this decision. Those who push anti-abortion legislation and regulations forward claim to have a goal of helping women. The result is exactly the opposite.

If Ms. Whalen had the money to travel and pay for the procedure, none of this would have happened. As in nearly all instances of laws and regulations that inhibit abortion availability, it is not those who can pay that unable to get help. It is the women who cannot pay who suffer the consequences of forced pregnancy, illegal abortions, and prosecution.



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