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How States Are Criminalizing Abortion Despite Vows Not To Do So

Abortion opponents say they want to criminalize only providers, not pregnant people. In a statement this year titled, “Why women are not, and should not be, prosecuted for abortion,” Americans United for Life said that prosecuting women “for the crime of abortion is unwise and contrary to the goals of the movement.”

This is untrue: even while Roe v. Wade was in place, thousands of people were criminalized for having miscarriages, stillbirths, or abortions, reports The Appeal. In the year since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, abortion opponents have prosecuted more women for their pregnancy outcomes and introduced laws allowing criminal charges against people who get abortions.

Women in three states have been arrested and charged for having a stillbirth or allegedly ending their pregnancies. Lawmakers in Idaho made it a crime—punishable by two to five years in prison—to help a pregnant child get an abortion in another state. Lawmakers in seven states introduced bills seeking to classify abortion as homicide, which is punishable by death in each jurisdiction.

In August, police in Norfolk, Va., arrested 41-year-old Jessica Burgess and her then-17-year-old daughter, Celeste, after the teen allegedly took abortion pills at 29 weeks. Local reporters said police began investigating the family last April after someone told police the teen had miscarried and her mother had buried the remains.

Prosecutors initially charged the teen and her mother with concealing a dead human body—a felony—and two misdemeanors. After Facebook’s parent company Meta provided police with messages between the teen and her mother, Madison County Attorney Joseph Smith filed additional felony charges against the elder Burgess for allegedly performing an abortion after 20 weeks and performing an abortion as a non-licensed doctor. The teen took a plea deal and faces up to two years in prison. Her mother faces eight years.

In February, police in Greenville, S.C., arrested a woman for allegedly taking abortion pills at 25 weeks. According to a police report obtained by Jezebel, the then-33-year-old woman was taken by an ambulance to a local hospital in 2021 because she was experiencing contractions. Police allege the woman told hospital staff she had taken abortion pills. Greenville police arrested the woman for performing or soliciting an abortion. She faces up to two years in prison.

In May, the Pike County, Ala., Sheriff’s Office arrested 24-year-old Chelsey Redmon-Zellers for having a stillbirth. The local district attorney’s office charged Redmon-Zellers with chemical endangerment, a felony, for allegedly using drugs during her pregnancy. Law enforcement officials allege a toxicology report showed drugs in the baby’s system.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said he could use the state’s chemical endangerment law to prosecute people who take abortion pills to end their pregnancy—before walking the statement back days later.

Legislators in seven states—Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas—introduced bills to allow people who get abortions to be prosecuted for murder. In all seven states, homicide is punishable by the death penalty. None of those bills has become law.

The fact that they were introduced shows that abortion opponents are done pretending they don’t want to incarcerate people who have abortions. Laws criminalizing abortion have had severe consequences. When abortions are criminalized, people who become pregnant are forced into tragic circumstances. A woman in Texas was forced to give birth to a baby with no brain.

Children have been forced to become mothers. Because Florida law prevented her from getting an abortion, Deborah Dobert was forced to carry to term a baby with no kidneys, despite knowing he would die upon birth. Her son, Milo, died in her arms shortly after he was born. “I watched my child take his first breath,” Dobert said, “and I held him as he took his last one.”


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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