Mother will spend at least one year in prison for getting her daughter abortion pills


Jennifer Whalen, the Pennsylvania mother charged with a felony for helping her daughter get an abortion, has been sentenced to up to 18 months in prison

Jennifer Ann Whalen, 39, of Washingtonville, a single mother who works as a nursing home aide, pleaded guilty in August to obtaining the miscarriage-inducing pills from an online site in Europe for her daughter, 16, who did not want to have the child.

Whalen was sentenced on Friday by Montour County Court of Common Pleas Judge Gary Norton to serve 12 months to 18 months in prison for violating a state law that requires abortions to be performed by physicians.

She was also fined $1,000 and ordered to perform 40 hours of community service after her release. The felony offense called for up to seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

As we’ve covered before, Whalen bought the drugs because she couldn’t find a local clinic (87 percent of counties in Pennsylvania don’t have a single abortion provider), and said she didn’t know she needed a prescription for them. Surely, she probably didn’t imagine that providing the drugs would be a felony offense since abortion is still officially legal.

State laws requiring an abortion to performed by a doctor were intended to prosecute quack providers; they were never intended to be used against people seeking to end their pregnancies — and they make no sense in the modern world where the procedure can be “performed” non-surgically by taking a couple pills. In a recent NYT Magazine article on self-induced abortion and the work of Women on Web, which provides misoprostol and mifepristone to women in countries where abortion is illegal, reproductive health researcher Daniel Grossman explained, “Self-induction with mife and miso is not your mother or your grandmother’s self-induction. Provided that women have good knowledge about using the medication properly, it’s a great option.”

As Whalen’s lawyer notes, prosecutions like this are not common — but, unfortunately, that’s beginning to change, as feticide laws and bans on self-abortion are increasingly used to police pregnancy. Just last week, police “swarmed” a Dallas high school — even sending in a goddamn helicopter — after learning that a student (sorry, I mean, a “suspect”) may have miscarried in a bathroom stall. In case you’re confused, no, miscarriage isn’t illegal — yet — but it sure is suspicious, don’t ya think?

If these laws remain on the books and continue to be abused like this, it’s terribly obvious what the consequence will be: Pregnant people — whether they intended to end their pregnancies or not — will be afraid to seek medical help when they need it. As Nicole Cliffe notes, the take-away from Whalen’s story seems to be: “desperate people, do not take your bleeding, cramping female friend or relative to the hospital, because it’s 1954 and you or they will go to jail.” After all, if Whalen hadn’t taken her to the hospital for treatment, the single mother would likely not be spending at least a year of her daughter’s adolescence behind bars.

Maya DusenberyMaya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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