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A pro-choice activists holds a coat hanger, historically used for self-induced abortion, that reads "never again" in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, January 22, 2015. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Feticide laws

Woman charged with attempted murder for coat hanger abortion

By Colleen Curry on December 14, 2015

A Tennessee woman was been indicted for attempted murder for allegedly trying to give herself an at-home abortion using a coat hanger in a case that abortion rights advocates say is an urgent warning sign of the country’s increasingly restrictive abortion laws.

Anna Yocca, 31, was 24 weeks pregnant when she allegedly tried to perform an abortion on herself by using a coat hanger in a bathtub filled with water, according to the Murfreesboro (TN) Post. When she saw significant amounts of blood in the water, she became concerned and called her boyfriend, who took her to the hospital, according to the report. The Murfreesboro police department would not confirm details of the case to Women in the World.

The Rutherford County District Attorney’s office presented evidence of Yocca’s abortion attempt to a grand jury this month and outlined the ways in which she could be criminally charged, and the grand jury returned an indictment for attempted murder, according to the prosecutor, Jennings Jones. Yocca was arrested December 9.

Anna Yocca. (Courtesy Rutherford County Sheriff's Office)
Anna Yocca. (Courtesy Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office)

The case is unusual, according to both abortion rights activists and pro-life advocates. The pro-life group Americans United for Life said in a statement to Women in the World it does not advocate that criminal charges be filed against women regarding abortion — a view in line with the movement’s longstanding position that the abortion providers, not women, are to blame for abortions.

And while there have been cases of women being charged criminally for taking drugs or engaging in otherwise harmful behavior while pregnant and harming the fetus, murder charges are not typically filed, said Michele Goodwin, a University of California, Irvine, law professor who has published extensively on feticide.

“There’s been a dramatic rise in prosecutions of women for so-called harming or posing injury or threat to unborn children, and at the same time there have been so many obstacles placed in the way of women receiving safe abortions that the result will likely mean even more prosecutions,” she said.

In March of this year, Purvi Patel became the first woman in the country to be convicted and sentenced on charges of feticide. Indiana authorities said Patel gave birth to a live baby who died after a few breaths because she did not try to keep it alive, and then threw the remains in a dumpster. Patel said the baby was stillborn.

Tennessee is one of 38 states with fetal homicide laws on the books, according to Kelli Garcia, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, who said that the push toward charging women criminally for abortions, miscarriages, and stillbirths is still relatively new. When coupled with the hundreds of new state-level laws passed in the past five years that have restricted women’s access to abortion, the feticide laws present a real problem for women who decide to have an abortion but have little ability to have it safely done at a clinic, Goodwin said.

Both legal tactics are part of a broader trend toward conservatism around abortion, said Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network. When Republicans seized many house legislatures amid the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, the prolife movement saw a renewed ability to push for anti-abortion policies. By making it harder for women to access safe abortions and criminalizing self-administered abortions, women are left with few options, she said. Those who are poor are left with even fewer.

“It’s a time where trends are crashing together. Women are poorer, it’s harder to get abortions, and it’s a conservative climate that would support a prosecutor bringing charges against a woman where 10 or 20 years ago there may have been more sympathy for the woman that would have prevented him from doing so,” Pearson said. “And it’s the women who are most disadvantaged who end up with charges against them.”

Sasha Bruce, senior vice president of campaigns and strategy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, said that there’s a clear line between when anti-choice legislators “take rights away from women to control their own destinies” and then see women choose to try and administer their own abortions. In Tennessee, she said, restrictions have resulted in 96 percent of counties not having an abortion clinic, as well as an unconstitutional and unenforceable statewide ban on all abortions.

“Legislators are doing everything they can to make sure women can’t access their constitutional rights,” Bruce said. “People talk about it going back to the pre-Roe (vs Wade) era and we can see that happening.”

Many abortion rights advocates pointed to a study out from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project that showed that in Texas, which has some of the tightest restrictions on access in the country, 7 percent of women seeking an abortion reported having attempted a self-induced abortion in the current pregnancy. Out of the state’s female population age 18 to 49, 1.7 percent reported they had ever attempted self-induced abortion.

“Unfortunately that is what we are seeing, a reduction in access to services results in some women taking matters into their own hands without medical guidance,” said Elizabeth Nash, Senior State Issues Associate at the Guttmacher Institute.

“But you shouldn’t be throwing a woman in jail for an abortion without medical guidance,” she added. “You should be looking for ways to ensure access to abortion services and that they are affordable.”

Jill Adams, Executive Director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at the University of California Berkeley, has been studying the myriad new abortion restriction laws in place in states across the country, and said that for increasing numbers of Americans, self-induced abortion is becoming “the only accessible or acceptable method of abortion care.” And while coat-hanger cases are extremely rare, she said, many individuals are taking abortion medication they obtain online or through other channels.

“There are many different reasons why people need or want to self-administer abortion care, but one of the most prominent is a lack of access related to legal restrictions like those in Tennessee, as well as practical barriers, including financial obstacles,” she said.

Adams said the restrictions have essentially reduced the constitutional right of access to abortion to a two-tiered system of rights, in which people with geographic access, insurance coverage, and financial means can exercise that right, and those without access cannot. And now, when women self-administer an abortion, they then risk ending up in the criminal justice system under statutes like the one being used in Tennessee, Adams said.

Pearson said that she and other advocates, including Adams, are working to lobby lawmakers at local, state, and federal levels to reverse the anti-abortion legislative trend by convincing them of the importance of providing access to safe women’s health care.

Yocca is set to appear in court December 21.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the findings of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project.


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