On Saturday, 23-year-old Kenlissa Jones of Albany, Georgia was arrested and held without bond at the Dougherty County jail on charges of “malice murder” and “possession of a dangerous drug” for self-inducing her own abortion. Jones reportedly told a hospital social worker that she had taken four Cytotec pills, also known as misoprostol, which she purchased on the Internet from Canada. Cytotec is safe and commonly used for first trimester medication abortions. The social worker later called local police to report Jones and she was subsequently arrested. The police report says Jones went into labor while in the car and delivered the fetus en route to the hospital. The fetus was pronounced dead 30 minutes after arrival.
While the police report does not state Jones’ gestational age, a local news outlet has reported that authorities claim Jones was around 22 weeks. Current law in Georgia requires that abortions after 12 weeks must be performed in a licensed hospital, ambulatory surgical center, or abortion facility. In 2012, the state passed a law banning abortion after 20 weeks, however the law is currently held up in the courts due to an injunction. The landmark abortion case, Roe v. Wade guarantees the constitutional right to an abortion up to viability, determined to be around 24 weeks. This morning, District Attorney Greg Edwards issued a statement dropping the murder charge against Jones, after three days in jail. Jones still faces the misdemeanor “possession of a dangerous drug” charge.
Like two-thirds of women having an abortion, Jones was already a parent to her 1-year-old son. Her family says they were unaware she was seeking an abortion, which is common since many women experience shame and stigma when seeking care and elect to tell few loved ones.
Jones is far from the first woman to be charged with a crime for self-inducing her own abortion. Earlier this year, the state of Indiana sentenced Purvi Patel to 20 years in prison on charges of “child neglect” and “feticide” after Patel claims she miscarried. In 2012, Indiana also prosecuted Bei Bei Shuai for ingesting rat poison during a suicide attempt that resulted in the termination of her pregnancy.
Yet, as anti-abortion legislation shutters clinics across the country and the distance between clinics and overall cost to access an abortion continues to increase, cases like Jones’ will become commonplace. In fact, on Tuesday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit dealt pro-choice advocates a blow ruling that Texas’ infamous HB 2 law requiring all abortion clinics to become ambulatory surgical centers, meeting many hospital standards, stands and is predicted to cut the number of abortion clinics to fewer than ten – in a state of 27 million people. Anyone seeking an abortion might have to travel several hours to their nearest provider. It is possible Jones was facing a similar predicament. According to the National Abortion Federation, the closest abortion provider to her in southern Georgia is 90 minutes away, and that clinic stops performing abortions at 14 weeks. Even if Jones made the three-hour trip to a clinic that could see her in Atlanta, she’d have to wait 24 hours before getting an abortion. Many people don’t have the luxury of time off of work to make multiple trips, so Jones did what many around the world do: used the resources at her disposal and terminated her pregnancy herself.
“The picture that is coming together is chillingly clear,” explained Farah Diaz-Tello, senior staff attorney at National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “First you create laws that permit criminal prosecutions for causing the death of a fetus. Then, you systematically shut down the legal abortion clinics. Then, you wait for desperate women to do what they’ve always done to control their own fertility.”
With many Black women lacking access to contraception and experiencing high rates of unintended pregnancy, access to safe abortion care is an essential part of reproductive healthcare. A 2013 poll found that over 70 percent of Black people believe some healthcare professionals should provide legal abortions in their community. Even the United Nations has determined denial of access to abortion to be a form of torture. Unfortunately, the United States is trending in the other direction. “Our systems of state surveillance and punishment are disproportionately used to control people of color, and racialized economic inequality means that Black women are more likely to experience poverty that would make abortion out of reach,” says Diaz-Tello.
With the ever-changing laws restricting access to abortion care, some are choosing to induce their own abortions. “Not knowing where or how to access abortion care, as well as concerns about the high cost of services, are among the top reasons women give for attempting this on their own,” Dr. Daniel Grossman, vice president for research at Ibis Reproductive Health told EBONY.com. “Policies that lead to the closure of clinics or restrict procedures after a certain gestational age, or that limit funding for abortion care, all may end up pushing some women to try to cause their own abortion without medical supervision.”
However, self-induction isn’t new. In many countries where abortion is illegal, women use herbs and pills to end their pregnancies on their own terms. Here in the United States, undocumented women often resort to taking medication abortion pills to avoid border patrols while traveling to their nearest abortion clinic. Some methods of self-termination are safe, says Dr. Grossman, however he says others can be risky or ineffective. “Self-induction with medications such as mifepristone plus misoprostol or misoprostol alone can be very safe,” he says. This method is recommended by the World Health Organization, and was the one chosen by Jones, however it is only recommended up to ten weeks gestation. “More commonly, we’re seeing women use ineffective methods like herbs, which just end up pushing women later in pregnancy before they realize the method didn’t work, and then it’s much harder to access clinic-based care,” describes Dr. Grossman. “And sometimes women use risky methods like getting beaten up to try to end the pregnancy.”
It’s abhorrent to think that in the United States, a country that prides itself on having the best medical care in the world, is forcing its citizens to subject themselves to violence rather than afford them their constitutional right to an extremely safe medical procedure. As Diaz-Tello explains it, the cycle of oppression keeps Black women from accessing abortion care and then criminalizes them for taking matters into their own hands. “The math is simple: we will see more Black women accused as murderers for attempting abortion at home.”
Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist and member of Echoing Ida, a project of Forward Together that amplifies the voices of Black women around critical social justice issues. Her work has appeared on the BBC, TIME, Salon, The Guardian, and Fusion. Bracey Sherman earned her Master's degree in Public Administration from Cornell University and sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RBraceySherman.