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Idaho Woman Arrested For Abortion Is Uneasy Case For Both Sides

POCATELLO, Idaho - An Idaho woman arrested for inducing her own abortion is taking her case to federal court. Jennie Linn McCormack was charged last year under an obscure Idaho law for ending her pregnancy with RU-486. She joins an increasing number of women who get the so-called abortion pill off the internet.

McCormack’s attorney says he’s willing to take the challenge all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, neither pro-choice nor pro-life groups are paying attention to the case.

Jennie McCormack tries to calm her three-year-old son, the youngest of her three kids. Photo by Jessica Robinson
Jennie McCormack tries to calm her three-year-old son, the youngest of her three kids. Photo by Jessica Robinson

McCormack is a small, quiet woman in her early-30s and a single mom of three. McCormack was raised devoutly Mormon in Pocatello, Idaho, where she’s lived all her life -- and until last year, she was used to going unnoticed.

“I kind of always kept to myself. But I’ve never had enemies or anything thing," McCormack says. "It’s different now.

“The stares I get. I had to quit my job because people didn’t want me to help them.”

People recognize her from the newspaper stories that followed her arrest. McCormack won’t talk about the day she had an abortion. She's following her attorney's advice. But here’s what the public record says.

In late 2010, McCormack learned she was pregnant. The father was out of the picture. Her youngest was barely two and she was living off child support checks.

Getting an abortion would have cost at least $500 and required multiple trips back and forth to a clinic hours away. So, McCormack turned to the rising number of Internet suppliers of abortion pills.

Now, this is where the story gets more complicated. RU-486 is medically recommended only within the first nine weeks of pregnancy. It turns out that McCormack was way past that although she said she didn’t realize it at the time.

After she aborted the fetus she was horrified by how far along it seemed. Possibly as much as 20 weeks. McCormack confided in a friend. It was this friend's sister that tipped off the police.

McCormack picks up the story on the evening the police arrived at her apartment.

“I had just gotten done doing laundry and my little boy was asleep and they knocked on my door.”

The police found the fetus wrapped up in bags on her back porch. McCormack said she didn’t know what else to do with it. The police took her to the station.

“I didn’t understand any of it. And that’s the first thing I said when he questioned me. ‘How can you question me about my personal stuff?’ And he said, ‘Well there’s legal and there’s personal.’”

In a preliminary hearing, her medical history and personal relationships became part of a case against her. Her attorney is Richard Hearn, who in true small town fashion, also has a medical license. He says this was unlike any other abortion case he had seen.

“There are many cases where they prosecute or threaten to prosecute a doctor," Hearn says. "There are not so many where they’ve prosecuted a woman.”

McCormack ran afoul of a 1972 Idaho law that makes it a felony for a woman to perform her own abortion. Not only does the law pre-date Roe v. Wade, it pre-dates RU-486.

Mark Hiedeman was the county prosecutor who pursued the case against McCormack. He says her case raises new questions -– about the legality of women obtaining the so-called abortion pill online.

Jennie McCormack of Pocatello, Idaho, was arrested last year for inducing an abortion with RU-486 she got online. Photo by Jessica Robinson
Jennie McCormack of Pocatello, Idaho, was arrested last year for inducing an abortion with RU-486 she got online. Photo by Jessica Robinson

Yet, to Hiedeman’s surprise, the case has attracted little attention -- from either side.

“You’d think an issue like this would be something people would be more up in arms about and talking about," Hiedeman says. "And I haven’t heard that or seen that and I’m not sure why.”

The reason appears to be in the details.

One of the few pro-life groups we could find willing to say anything about McCormack was the Susan B. Anthony List. President Marjorie Dannenfelser calls the case “not acceptable."

She adds, "We do not think women should be criminalized. Criminal sanctions or any kind of sanctions are appropriate for abortionists, and not for women.”

And that’s the tricky thing about the case for the pro-life side according to Will Saletan. Saletan writes about reproductive health politics for Slate magazine.

“The prosecution of abortion, which always hinged on the doctor being the targeted party, now has to target the woman," he says. "And the pro-life movement is completely unprepared for that.”

But major pro-choice groups have also greeted the case with silence. Saletan says that’s because of what they see as the conservative makeup of the current Supreme Court.

“If you’re a pro-choice group right now, the last thing you want to do is bring a case before the Roberts Court.”

But, he says, if you do …

“This is not the plaintiff you want. Someone who procured her own abortion, fairly late in pregnancy. You want to choose your plaintiff very carefully.”

Three lower-profile pro-choice groups have filed a legal brief on behalf of McCormack. Lynn Paltrow is the president of one of those groups, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. She sees McCormack as the start of a disturbing trend.

“You pass laws first that say only physicians can perform abortions. Then you pass laws that make it impossible for those physicians to provide abortions. And then women take the steps they need to take as they do all around the world, as they did before Roe," Paltrow says. "And you create a perfect setup for making literally millions of women subject to arrest for having illegal self abortions.”

Back in Pocatello, McCormack is at home, trying to get her three-year-old son to calm down. He has a painful ear infection.

McCormack doesn’t go out much. The injunction McCormack’s attorney filed against the county prosecutor keeps her from being arrested. But the county is continuing its investigation against her. McCormack says church was a solace for a while until she sat through a recent sermon on abortion. She thinks was aimed at her.

“I mean, they can sit there and judge me, but it’s not the easiest choice to ever have to make," she says. "And it was all -– a lot of it was about my children. I couldn’t put any more on them, or me.”

McCormack has just started a business online to see if she can make some money selling hand-made wreaths and other crafts. But she doesn’t want to say the name of the business, even to promote it. She says she doesn’t want anyone to know it’s her.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.