Image: AP

Women who are worried about criminal prosecution for ending their pregnancies outside of a clinic setting or assisting in a self-managed abortion have a new resource: a secure and confidential helpline from the Self-Induced Abortion Legal Team, an abortion advocacy nonprofit group.

“Even though abortion is legal here in the United states, at least for now, people who self manage their abortions and those who assist them can risk unjust arrest, investigation, and even time in prison,” Jill Adams, founder and chief strategist of the SIA Legal Team, told Jezebel over the phone.. “Many of these prosecutions are due to misinterpretations and misapplications of the law, improper reporting by hospital personnel, or politically motivated prosecutorial overreach.”

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In 2015, Indiana woman Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of feticide, child abuse, and neglect for inducing an abortion with abortion pills and disposing of the fetal remains. She was released from prison the following year, after a judge overturned the conviction. Since 1973, at least 21 people have been arrested for self-induced abortions and “we suspect that the real number is much higher than that,” Adams said. “Now that we have opened the helpline, we will learn about more cases and that number will steadily grow.”

Noting the rise of anti-abortion extremism in the government, she added, “We do anticipate an increase in criminalization of self-managed abortion.”

Before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, desperate women resorted to dangerous back-alley abortions to end their pregnancies. The legalization of abortion, along with the advent of medication abortions, which are administered in the form of two pills, means that self-managed of abortion should be easy, effective, and safe. “I think what’s interesting is that the risks today aren’t physical,” Adams said. “They’re legal.”

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In a 2018 report on the criminalization of non-clinical abortion, SIA counts about 40 different types of laws across the country that enable prosecution for self-induced abortion, including seven states that directly criminalize self-induced abortions, 11 states that misapply fetal harm laws that lack adequate exemptions for a person ending their pregnancy, and 15 states with “criminal abortion laws that have been and could be misapplied to people who self-induce.”

“In many of these cases, we’ve seen overzealous prosecutors unearthing antiquated statutes and really contorting statues far behind their legislative intent and misapplying them,” she said, “Those range from practicing medicine without a license to possession of a dangerous substance to child neglect and abuse charges to even failure to report a death or concealment of a birth.”

The SIA helpline is staffed by a non-attorney advocate who offers information, support, and attorney referrals to people “who have been questioned by the police about an abortion or who fear they will be,” Adams said.

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While callers can’t retain legal advice via the helpline, they can use SIA to get in touch with lawyers who can. SIA staff is also available to offer assistance to local defense lawyers already working on cases like these.

“Bottom line is, no one should fear arrest for ending their own pregnancy, or for supporting someone who has decided to do this, or for seeking medical help,” Adams said. “When someone has decided to end a pregnancy, they should be able to do so safely, effectively, and without being criminalized.”