National Partnership for Women & Families

In the News

Commentary discusses how 'women are already being punished for having abortions'

Citing antiabortion-rights rhetoric that calls for punishing women for abortion care, columnist Molly Redden in a commentary in The Guardian writes that "some women are already being punished for having abortions."

Background

Redden writes, "Nearly 44 years after the supreme court ruled that women in the United States have a right to a legal abortion, self-induced abortions are still a significant phenomenon." She explains that "every year, there are potentially thousands of women in the US who attempt to end their pregnancies by themselves."

According to Redden, documented instances of self-induced abortion "represent just a small fraction" of such cases. She cites a study that "found evidence that potentially 100,000 women in Texas have at some point in their lives attempted to self-induce an abortion."

Self-induced abortion care is 'murky legal territory'

While the overall legality of self-induced abortion is "murky," Redden notes that "seven states have some law that makes it explicitly illegal for a woman to attempt her own abortion," and the absence of such laws in other states or at the federal level "hasn't stopped individual prosecutors from going after women who self-induce abortions." Citing the Self-Induced Abortion (SIA) Legal Team, a project associated with Berkeley Law, Redden writes, "All told, in the United States, a woman who attempts to induce her own abortion may potentially be running afoul of any one of 40 different laws."

Further, Redden notes that in several cases, "law enforcement agencies have charged women under laws ostensibly enacted to protect women." For instance, she writes that a Pennsylvania woman in 2013 "was charged with offering medical advice about abortion without being medically licensed after she ordered an abortion drug online for her pregnant daughter." According to Redden, "Thirty-seven states have similar laws requiring abortion drugs to be administered by a licensed physician."

Noting that decisions about whether to prosecute self-induced abortion "are made on such a local level," Redden writes that the new administration "will not necessarily result in an explosion of prosecutions." However, "some predicted it could represent an expansion of the restrictions that cause women to take matters into their own hands in the first place," she writes, citing Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, who said, "'That is something that one could reasonably predict in an environment where abortion becomes even illegal, or even more inaccessible than it has been.'"

Criminalizing self-induced abortion makes pregnant women beholden to 'a separate and unequal law'

Data from the SIA Legal Team and the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) suggest that prosecutions for self-induced abortion have been relatively rare since Roe v. Wade, but Redden notes that experts believe prosecuting women for such actions "has an effect on all women by dragging reproductive decisions out of the realm of healthcare and into the realm of law and justice."

She quotes Jill Adams, the chief strategist of the SIA Legal Team, who says, "'Prosecutions for self-induced abortion are an abuse of the criminal justice system.'" Addams explained, "Once a woman has decided [to have an abortion], she should be able to do so safely and effectively. Women who self-administer abortion need to be supported, not seized. Abortion, whether self-directed or provider-directed, is a private experience."

Further, paraphrasing Lynn Paltrow, head of NAPW, Redden writes, "Once law enforcement is in the habit of prosecuting women for abortions, ... it is not a stretch for them to police any behaviors that could conceivably endanger a fetus." According to Redden, "Women have been charged with attempted abortion for attempting suicide or for injuring themselves unintentionally in a car crash." She adds, "In fact, women have been charged with endangerment of a fetus hundreds of times in the past few decades."

Redden concludes by quoting Paltrow, who said, "'We have gone and created a unique, gender-based crime, where the action actually requires a pregnancy to be a crime.'" Paltrow continued, "You've created a separate and unequal law. And people don't understand that in a country that has so expanded its criminal laws, any prosecutor intent on punishing anybody can find a crime" (Redden, The Guardian, 11/22).