The XX Factor

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Fewer than 1 percent of women who take a combination of mifepristone and misoprostol experience serious side effects.

Photo by Manoocher Deghati/AFP/Getty Images

Opponents of abortion claim that they are motivated by a deep concern for the well-being of women and girls, and that they push for increasingly harsh restrictions on abortion out of a desire to keep women safe and healthy. This year, that claim was put to the test when the well-being of a woman and the daughter she wished to protect clashed with Pennsylvania’s restrictive abortion laws. Unsurprisingly, in a conflict between abortion restrictions and the well-being of women, women lose.

Jennifer Whalen’s teenage daughter needed an abortion, but circumstances (more on that below) made it very difficult for Whalen to get her daughter to a clinic. So Whalen bought a combination of mifepristone and misoprostol online—pills that are 95 percent effective with fewer than 1 percent of users experiencing serious side effects if taken correctly—and helped her daughter take them. For this, she is now serving a nine- to 18-month jail sentence, ripped from her family by laws that proponents swear are there to protect women and their families.

My former colleague Emily Bazelon, now at the New York Times Magazine, went to visit Whalen, who previously worked as a personal care aide, the night before she was headed to prison. What she discovered was a woman who “doesn’t want to be a cause célèbre” and only agreed to talk “in hopes of correcting errors about the case in the media.” Whalen is particularly upset by reports that she “performed an illegal abortion,” as if she “had done back-alley surgery” when all she really did was hand her daughter a packet of pills. Whalen is right, of course. It is absurd how anti-choice hysteria over abortion has created the false impression in the public mind that aborting a fetus is some kind of dangerous and grotesque procedure, even in the first trimester, which is when Whalen’s daughter took her pills.  

Why, you may wonder, couldn’t Whalen just get her daughter an abortion at a local clinic?

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. (Whalen’s husband, who waited outside in the car during our interview, declined to talk to me.)

Whalen called a local women’s center on her daughter’s behalf but was told no one there could help, she said. She and her daughter did more online searching, and a site popped up with misoprostol and mifepristone for sale for $45. Whalen hadn’t heard of the medication before. “I read all the information,” she said. “They said these pills would help give a miscarriage, and they were the same ones a doctor would give you.” She says she had no idea that buying them was illegal.

Whalen’s protective instincts kicked in when she took her daughter to the hospital later for stomach pains, and told her to be honest with doctors about what she did, in hopes that would mean better medical treatment for the girl. Her daughter was fine, and this line from Bazelon’s piece is an important one: “In fact, doctors have told me, there is no medical reason for women to tell a health care provider that they’ve taken the pills, because any treatment they receive is the same as it would be for a spontaneous miscarriage.” Unfortunately, Whalen did not have that advice at the time, and the hospital, knowing what pills her daughter had taken, decided to report Whalen to child protective services. This eventually led to her conviction for breaking Pennsylvania’s regulations on who can make the “medical judgment” to provide abortion. 

Montour County District Attorney Rebecca Warren denies that there was any kind of political grandstanding going on in the decision to prosecute Whalen, saying, “it is vital to note that this case is not about pro-life or pro-choice. In actuality, this case is about endangering the welfare of a child through the unauthorized practice of medicine and pharmacy.” The problem with that rationale, however, is that the alternative—forcing the girl to go through with the pregnancy—is well-known to be a much greater danger to her welfare. Childbirth has much higher rates of complication than abortion and is 14 times likelier to kill you than abortion is. Beyond that, there’s a myriad of problems that all but the most ardent anti-choicer has to admit come along with teenagers having babies when they don’t want to.

“Opponents of abortion often dismiss the notion that restricting access to the procedure can lead to prison sentences for women,” Bazelon writes, because admitting that these laws are used to prosecute women would undermine their farcical claims to care about women’s welfare. But Bazelon was able to point to nine separate cases of women being charged with a crime for self-abortion. Whalen’s is the first case she could find of someone being prosecuted for a first trimester abortion, but with the increasing attacks on abortion access and the ease of ordering illegal abortion pills online, it’s unlikely that Whalen will be the last.

None of this would have happened if abortion pills, which are safe and can be taken at home, were much easier for women to get. Between cultural pressures and legal restrictions, most women can only access the pills through abortion clinics instead of just going to the local doctor. And those abortion clinics are disappearing rapidly under the weight of unnecessary restrictions.  Now a family is being torn apart all because an abortion that should have been easy to get, wasn’t. “I’m scared,” Whalen told Bazelon of serving her sentence. “And I’m hurt because I can’t be with my family.”