The mother in jail for helping her daughter get an abortion tells her story

hands-in-jail-dark-375x250We’ve been following the case of Jennifer Ann Whalen, the mother who was prosecuted for helping her daughter get an abortion, for awhile. Whalen was charged with a felony after ordering abortion pills online without a doctor’s perscription, and she’s now serving up to 18 months in prison. (Basically, this woman should get every Mom of the Year Award ever.) Whalen, who wants nothing but privacy for her and her family, did grant one interview to Emily Bazelon right before she began her sentence. Here’s her story

Whalen told me that in the winter of 2012, her daughter came to her and said she was pregnant. Whalen told her she would “support her in any decision she made.” Her daughter, who was in high school, took a few days to think and then asked her mother for help ending the pregnancy. “She said, ‘I can’t have a baby right now,’ and she asked me to look up clinics,” Whalen said.

Together, they looked online. The closest clinic was about 75 miles away. Pennsylvania requires women seeking abortions to first receive counseling and wait 24 hours before returning for the procedure. The cost of a first-trimester abortion is typically between $300 and $600. Whalen works as a personal-care aide at an assisted-living center for the elderly. She didn’t have health insurance for her daughter. And she was worried about taking time away from work and her family to make two trips or to stay overnight. At the time, Whalen and her husband shared one car, which they both used to get to work. And she hadn’t told her husband about the pregnancy. “I knew he would be upset, and I was protecting the whole family,” she said. (Whalen’s husband, who waited outside in the car during our interview, declined to talk to me.)

Whalen called a local women’s center on her daughter’s behalf but was told no one there could help, she said. She and her daughter did more online searching, and a site popped up with misoprostol and mifepristone for sale for $45. Whalen hadn’t heard of the medication before. “I read all the information,” she said. “They said these pills would help give a miscarriage, and they were the same ones a doctor would give you.” She says she had no idea that buying them was illegal.

The practical problem with going online to find the pills that cause abortion is that scam sites abound. Women can wind up with fake medication or without all the information they need to take the drugs safely. But that didn’t happen in this case. When the drugs arrived, about five days later, Whalen and her daughter read the instructions to make sure of the correct dosage and to know how to look for complications. After her daughter took the pills, she started bleeding, as if she were having her period, Whalen said. “Then she started having stomach pains, and she got scared, so that was when I took her to the hospital. At first, she didn’t want me to tell the hospital anything. I told her, ‘We have to, so they can take care of you the way they need to.’” In fact, doctors have told me, there is no medical reason for women to tell a health care provider that they’ve taken the pills, because any treatment they receive is the same as it would be for a spontaneous miscarriage. But the drugs Whalen’s daughter took didn’t include that information.

Shortly after the hospital visit, the police came knocking on their door, with a warrant to search for the empty box the pills were sent in. That was the first time Whalen learned that you had to have a doctor’s perscription for the drugs. Another two years passed–during which the district attorney was basically just figuring out exactly how to charge her. Ultimately, Whalen was charged with a felony for offering medical consultation about abortion without a medical license, along with a few misdemeanors. At one point, Whalen could have pled guilty to the misdemeanors to avoid jail time, but if would have meant losing her job, which her family relies on.

As Bazelon notes, anti-choicers love to make the totally nonsensical claim that criminalizing abortion somehow doesn’t lead to people being throw in jail for having abortions. Americans United for Life went so far as to write in 2010 that: “There is no documented case since 1922 in which a woman has been charged in an abortion in the United States.” In fact, there have been many in the last decade. And as long as self-induced abortion is illegal and access to legal abortion continues to be aggressively chipped away, there are sure to be more and more women–and those who help them–behind bars for doing what they need to do to end their pregnancies.

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 Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, 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.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation