A Mother in Jail for Helping Her Daughter Have an Abortion
On Sept. 12th, Jennifer Whalen, a 39-year-old mother of three in the rural town of Washingtonville, Pa., went to jail to begin serving a 9-to-18-month sentence. Whalen’s crime was, in effect, ordering pills online that her older daughter took in the first several weeks of an unplanned pregnancy, when she was 16, to induce a miscarriage. The medication was a combination of mifepristone (formerly called RU-486) and misoprostol. The drugs have been available from a doctor with a prescription in the United States since 2000 and are used around the world to induce miscarriage.
Recent research increasingly suggests that early in a pregnancy, women can safely use mifepristone and misoprostol to miscarry at home. (Much more about this here, in a story I wrote in August). But if the medical risk of this kind of do-it-yourself abortion is relatively small, the legal risk still looms large.
On the night before Whalen went to jail, I drove to Pennsylvania to meet her. We sat at a conference table in the office of her lawyer, who was present for the 90-minute conversation. For most of the time we spent together, she sat hunched forward, arms wrapped around herself. She was dreading the prospect of leaving her 11-year-old daughter and her husband at home, she said, as well as her older daughter, now 19, who still lives with the family. (The oldest child, a 20-year-old son, lives nearby.) “I’m scared,” Whalen said of serving her sentence. “And I’m hurt because I can’t be with my family.”
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