The Next Roe V. Wade?

By Hass, Nancy | Newsweek, December 19, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Next Roe V. Wade?


Hass, Nancy, Newsweek


Byline: Nancy Hass

Jennie McCormack was arrested for terminating her pregnancy with an abortion pill. The case that could transform the reproduction wars.

The last thing on Jennie Linn McCormack's mind when she realized she was pregnant was that she might, with a single telephone call, upend the vitriolic national debate on abortion.

All she thought about was how it would be impossible for her to take care of another baby. Surviving, barely, on the $250 of monthly child support for one of her three kids, the unemployed, unmarried 32-year-old also knew she didn't have the more than $500 she'd need for the two-and-a-half-hour trip from her bare-bones rental in Pocatello, Idaho, to Salt Lake City, the closest city with a clinic willing to terminate a pregnancy. She had no computer, no car, no one to take care of her 2-year-old--and like Idaho, Utah had a waiting period for abortions, which meant she'd have to make two round trips. So early this past January, she made the call that may alter history and turn Jennie McCormack into Jane Roe's unlikely successor: she asked her sister in Mississippi to buy RU-486, the so-called abortion pill, over the Internet and send it to her. The cost: about $200.

"My mind just kept going back to my kids, how there was no way I could do that to them, no way I could make their lives even worse," says McCormack, a petite blonde, as she nearly sinks between the cushions of her sofa, her eyes rimmed with tears. The man who had impregnated her had just been sent to jail for robbery; she did not feel comfortable reaching out to her mother--Mormon, like almost everyone in southeastern Idaho--for help.

McCormack, who thought she was about 12 weeks along, took the pills (the protocol involves two drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol) the afternoon they arrived. The drugs are FDA-approved only for ending early-stage pregnancies; McCormack had no complications, but the pregnancy turned out to be more advanced than she thought--perhaps between 18 and 21 weeks, experts later speculated--and the size of the fetus scared her. She didn't know what to do--"I was paralyzed," she says--so she put it in a box on her porch, and, terrified, called a friend. That friend then called his sister, who reported McCormack to the police.

Although RU-486 is legal and the fetus was not yet "viable" (that is, old enough to live outside the uterus), Idaho has a 1972 law--never

before enforced--making it a crime punishable by five years in prison for a woman to induce her own abortion. The day after police arrested McCormack, her mug shot appeared above the fold in the local newspaper. "It's hard to imagine the humiliation and fear," says her lawyer, Richard Hearn, who is also a physician.

The case was dropped weeks later due to lack of evidence. Without solid proof, such as the envelope in which the pills came, her confession wasn't enough to sustain the case. But prosecutors retained the right to re-file charges. In response, Hearn got a federal injunction to prevent any woman from being prosecuted under the state's anti-abortion statute by the district attorney. He also filed a class-action suit against the state, claiming the statute is unconstitutional. But all that took nine months to play out, and McCormack lurched into depression and became a virtual shut-in.

"You'd have to know the climate here," says Hearn, "to fully imagine the amount of pressure Jennie is under, how hostile people can be, how isolated she is." Next week, motions will be heard in federal court to certify the suit as a class action. Last week, the prosecutor filed a motion to have Hearn's injunction lifted. (The prosecutor's office did not return calls seeking comment.)

The case has become a huge tangle for both sides of the abortion battle--state laws that put abortion beyond the reach of poor women are clashing with the global reach of the Internet. With Hearn ready to take his case to the Supreme Court, Jennie Linn McCormack may be above the fold for years to come. …

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