In prison for parenting

Inaccessibility of legal abortion options leads to unnecessary risks and repercussions

With a few clicks online, Jennifer Whalen helped her daughter end an unwanted pregnancy – and committed a felony in doing so.

The 39-year-old mother of three living in rural Pennsylvania is currently in jail serving a nine to 18 month sentence after ordering mifepristone and misoprostol. The drug combination, which is used to induce a miscarriage, can be obtained legally with a prescription, but purchasing and using them in the way Whalen did is illegal – and dangerous.

The illegality of Whalen’s actions isn’t in question here. There’s no doubt that the dispersal of prescription drugs needs to be strictly monitored and controlled by professionals who are trained to do so. But that Whalen felt she needed to circumvent the law is the real issue at hand.

The decision to buy pills online is inherently risky. Women can end up buying fake medication, incorrect dosages or taking pills without the proper safety information, which can lead to serious health repercussions that would be avoided with the involvement and advice of medical professionals.

Though Whalen’s daughter didn’t suffer any serious complications, she and her mother also didn’t have all the information about the process. So when the daughter grew frightened after having stomach pains and bleeding, she and Whalen went to the hospital uninformed, which led to Whalen’s arrest.

Whalen was charged with a felony – offering medical consultation about abortion without a medical license and three misdemeanors – endangering the welfare of a child, dispensing drugs without being a pharmacist and assault. In an attempt to avoid losing her job, she pled guilty to the felony charge. Because her record was clean besides a 1994 charge for underage drinking, she could have received probation.

Instead, the judge decided that Whalen should go to jail. His harshness, while entirely within his purview, reveals a lack of sympathy for Whalen’s situation – a situation created by factors entirely outside of her control.

Tasked with helping her daughter end an unwanted pregnancy – with protecting her daughter and the future she wanted – Whalen didn’t feel like she had any options available, at least not any legal ones (she also says that she didn’t know her actions were illegal when she committed them).

When Whalen looked for local abortion clinics, the closest location was approximately 75 miles away. It would cost at least $300, and Whalen’s daughter, per state law, would have to visit the clinic to receive counseling and return after a 24-hour waiting period.

Whalen didn’t have health insurance for her daughter, had only one car that she shared with her husband (who didn’t know about the pregnancy) and wasn’t sure if she could take multiple days off of work.

Whalen’s circumstances weren’t extreme or uncommon, but they were enough to make a legal abortion feel impossible.

If there was an abortion clinic nearby; if the cost wasn’t so prohibitive or the waiting period so daunting; if Whalen had known of the risks of ordering pills online, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

Whalen’s daughter is not a victim of any crime, but her mother was a victim of their circumstances. Accessibility and education is key to protecting women from taking unnecessary risks to end unwanted pregnancies, or from feeling forced to have a child because they didn’t have a choice. For Whalen, the Internet offered accessibility, and the state offered only complications and costs.

And now, her daughter is going to college and working two jobs. Thanks to her mother’s efforts, she is free to pursue whatever future she desires – for her mother, it’s patently unjust that freedom is only a distant hope.