She’s a single, unemployed mother with three children who finds out that she’s pregnant—just after the father has been sent to prison. She says she is distraught at the idea of hurting her kids by adding another child to the family, giving each of them less money, time, and attention, dragging them further into poverty. But she lives in rural southeastern Idaho, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest clinic in Salt Lake City—and getting an abortion would require two round trips there, because of the mandatory waiting period.
So she takes RU-486, ordered online, self-supervised. She freaks out at the fetus’s size, stashes it on her back porch, tells a friend, and gets reported to the police.
And, is promptly arrested for inducing her own abortion.
To put it mildly, Jennie Linn McCormack doesn’t sound like the world’s most responsible person—except that she apparently had the good sense to realize she was not going to be a good parent to another child. I haven’t interviewed her myself; all I know about her comes from her own self-reports to other journalists, here at NPR and here at the Daily Beast. Still, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to guess that she would be the anti-poster child for any cause.
But should she go to prison for using an abortifacient and then being too wigged out to destroy the fetus?
McCormack was, in some ways, lucky; she apparently suffered no ill effects from using misoprostol on her own, no bleeding or other trauma. And on the spectrum of safe and unsafe, of course, misoprostol is better than coat hangers. Still, she—and her other three children—would be safer if she went to a doctor.
I called the Guttmacher Institute to ask whether ordering mifepristone online was the new face of abortion. Outside the United States, the answer is, in part, yes, according to the new world study Guttmacher recently published in The Lancet. As has long been true, “About one in five pregnancies ended in abortion in 2008. The abortion rate is lower in subregions where more women live under liberal abortion laws (p<0.05).” Here’s the new information about mifepristone, a abortifacient sometimes used in combination with misoprostol:
Evidence from various countries, including some with highly restrictive abortion laws, suggests that the use of misoprostol as an abortifacient has been spreading. Although clandestine medical abortions are likely to be of lower risk than other clandestine abortions, there is substantial variation in medical abortion regimens used illegally, and complications such as prolonged and heavy bleeding and incomplete abortions are associated with use of incorrect dosages. Thus, these procedures are on the whole classified as unsafe.
Rachel Jones, a senior research associate at Guttmacher, told me they have no evidence that McCormack’s self-induced medical abortion was typical in the U.S., however. She explained that the limited evidence she had showed that a very limited subset of women who do go to abortion clinics report that they previously tried to induce miscarriages by using herbs, vitamin C, or the non-alcoholic drink Malta, none of which are effective. “When desperate women find themselves pregnant,” Jones told me, “they will try anything they’ve been told might work.” But perhaps the women who use misoprostol don’t end up going to abortion clinics later, and so weren’t covered by this study. The research hasn’t yet been done.
For years, feminists and abortion activists have been warning that there are two kinds of abortion: legal and illegal, safe and unsafe. That’s the reason doctors go into the line of work: they know that they are saving lives. (Read some moving testimonials along those lines at the Tumblr I Am Dr. Tiller.) As restrictions on safe, legal abortions multiply, middle-class women will find ways to have safe abortions, and poor women will increasingly turn to off-label and illicit means to save their lives from the increased chaos, poverty, and heartbreak that another child would bring them. The choice in front of our society isn’t between abortion or adoption; it’s between abortions with medical supervision and Jennie Linn McCormack.