Idaho Woman Challenges Anti-Abortion “Fetal Pain” Law

Earlier this year, a woman named Jennie Linn McCormack, 33, from Idaho, was charged with using abortion pills she bought over the Internet to terminate her pregnancy. When she realized she could not afford to travel to Salt Lake City, Utah for a surgical abortion at a clinic, McCormack purchased pills online from a health care provider. She ended her pregnancy on December 24, 2010, when she was between 20 and 21 weeks of pregnancy; police found a fetus in a box in her home. In doing so, this unemployed mother of three broke a 1972 Idaho law which stipulates that a woman cannot terminate her own pregnancy. The case was dismissed due to lack of evidence. (Had she been found guilty, she could have faced up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.) But McCormack is up for a challenge: she is now suing in federal court, claiming the state’s restrictions on abortion violate the Constitution. Last Wednesday, McCormack filed a class-action lawsuit which says the law against a woman terminating her own pregnancy discriminates against women who live in rural areas because they are forced to travel for a more-costly surgical abortion. Her lawyer, Richard Hearn, who is also a physician, claimed the law caused a unconstitutional barrier to abortion. The abortion pill (also known as RU-486 or a medical abortion) can be taken at home; a surgical abortion requires a visit to an abortion clinic such as Planned Parenthood. However, 95 percent of Idaho counties have no abortion provider, according to a 2008 Guttmacher Institute study, and 69 percent of Idaho women live in those counties. In 2008, the state only had four abortion providers total. Obtaining a surgical abortion instead of a medical one is therefore extremely difficult.

McCormack’s lawsuit also challenges the state’s new “fetal pain law.” Had McCormack ended her pregnancy after April, she would have violated a “fetal pain” law that criminalizes abortion after 20 weeks — i.e. one of the latest ways anti-abortion activists seek to limit women’s access to abortion. “Fetal pain” laws claim that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks. The American College of Gynecology asserts there is no evidence to support that claim. But that hasn’t stopped Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Alabama, Indiana and Oklahoma from passing laws that ban abortion around the fifth month. McCormack’s lawsuit claims Idaho’s “fetal pain” law is unconstitutional because it does not include an exception for the mother’s health.

I hope McCormack’s lawsuit is successful and both laws are changed. But I also hope this provokes a discussion about the critical issue of abortion access. What good is a woman’s right to plan our families and make medical decisions about our own bodies if exercising that right is prohibitively expensive?

[Guttmacher Institute: State Facts About Abortion: Idaho]
Ms. Magazine]
[Idaho Statesman]

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