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‘A recipe for disaster’: The abortion pill and the problem of coercion

A box of medication used to induce abortion, known generically as mifepristone and by its brand name Mifeprex, is seen in an undated handout photo. (OSV News photo/courtesy Danco Laboratories)

As the Supreme Court continues to weigh restrictions on the abortion pill mifepristone, its use in coerced abortions is one often overlooked element of concern. Ed Mechmann, a former state and federal prosecutor and current director of public policy at the Archdiocese of New York, spoke with OSV News’ Charlie Camosy about loopholes in state law around coerced abortion along with some of the frightening statistics.

Charlie Camosy: I’ve made a case in recent weeks for the pro-life movement having a new focus on unwanted and coerced abortion. What do you think this new focus could look like, especially as so many are turning to the abortion pill?

Ed Mechmann: You’re right to focus on pressured and coerced abortions. This is one of the dark secrets of the abortion industry, and they steadfastly deny it’s a problem. But the numbers are horrifying. A 2003 study found that 24% of women said their abortion was “unwanted” or “coerced,” and those women reported more negative emotions and mental health outcomes than those who wanted their abortion. We’ve even seen some prominent celebrities, like Britney Spears, tell their story of an unwanted abortion. When you consider that there are over 900,000 abortions in the U.S. every year, that’s a frightening number of women who are being victimized — over 200,000 every year!

Now that over 50% of abortions are being done with the two-pill do-it-yourself regimen, the risk of coercion can only go up. These pills are dangerous, not only to the unborn child, but to mothers as well. Yet, they’re being prescribed by telemedicine and delivered by mail, without a personal visit to a doctor. And there are even bills being proposed that would allow pharmacists to dispense the pills without a doctor ever seeing the patient. The abortion industry is fighting furiously to loosen any restrictions on the pills.

This is a recipe for disaster — once these pills have been dispensed, there’s no way to safeguard women from abuse and no way to tell how those pills will be used or by whom.

Camosy: How does New York law let men off the hook if they drug pregnant women against their will this way?

Mechmann: New York is one of the handful of states that continues to follow the old common law rule that you can’t be a victim of a crime unless you’ve been born alive. So when a man tries to cause an abortion by secretly giving her the pills, there is no potential criminal charge for the direct attack on the unborn child. Until a few years ago, an attempted abortion by a non-physician or without maternal consent was a felony with the potential for long prison sentences (up to 15 years if the baby was older than 24 weeks). But in 2019, New York completely transformed our abortion laws with the Orwellian-named “Reproductive Health Act.”

The RHA eliminated all criminal penalties directly relating to abortion, leaving only a handful of inadequate ways to prosecute the man who sneaks abortion pills to a pregnant woman. If the attack were successful, he might be charged with a misdemeanor assault with a maximum one-year penalty — but only if a jury found that the attack caused “physical injury” to the woman. If the attack failed, the offense would also be a misdemeanor, but it would only carry a maximum penalty of three months in jail. Even if you could prove that he coerced her into having an abortion, it’s likely that he would only be liable for a misdemeanor. Given New York’s “progressive prosecutors,” I am dubious that they would aggressively pursue such a case. The punishment — if any — is woefully inadequate, and there is no justice for the unborn child herself.

Even in pro-life states, this crime is typically under-prosecuted. In a recent case in Texas — about as staunchly pro-life a state as you can find — a man was sentenced to only 180 days in jail for slipping his wife abortion pills, causing her and the baby significant health problems. The sad irony for New Yorkers is that the 9/11 memorial includes an unborn child as one of the victims of that day’s attack on the World Trade Center. Some unborn lives apparently have more value than others.

Camosy: Is this limited to New York? Or do some of the new radically pro-abortion laws in other states have similar loopholes?

Mechmann: Every state has different laws on abortion and protecting unborn children. They were enacted at different times, to serve different purposes, and are not generally well-coordinated. Laws have not kept up with the threat of unrestricted access to abortion pills. So there are lots of gaps in the laws. The key thing to look for is whether a state has an Unborn Victims of Violence Act and some criminal penalties for illegal abortions. Those laws are essential for protecting unborn children and their mothers from assault.

Around 39 states have “Unborn Victims of Violence” Acts, and most pro-life states have retained some form of criminal penalties for abortion. Even some pro-abortion states have both those laws — like California, of all places. But there are a handful of states like New York that have none — such as Colorado, Illinois and New Jersey. And some of those states have a lot of abortions, and thus a high potential for abuse. In some of these states, there was a deliberate effort to remove any reference to abortion in the criminal law. That stems from the ideology that abortion is just another kind of women’s health care. The tragedy is that women are at greater risk of harm of being coerced into abortion, and direct attacks on their children cannot be adequately prosecuted or deterred.

Camosy: How can pro-lifers and pro-life organizations respond to such a horrific situation? What can be done?

Mechmann: The prevalence of coerced or unwanted abortions is well-known to people who work in pregnancy centers or with post-abortive women. But the public as a whole — and women at risk of a coerced abortion — are almost certainly unaware that these centers offer a safe haven. We certainly need to do a better job of publicizing and supporting the good work of the centers, defending them against attacks by hostile government agencies and training their staff to screen for coercion and other risks. We also need to support more research and publicity about abortion pill reversal. Since the chemical abortion protocol involves two pills taken several days apart, that delay may be a window for a woman to reconsider or to escape her abuser. The abortion industry hates abortion pill reversal, and there have been efforts to suppress any information about it or even to make it illegal.

We certainly can’t trust abortion clinics to screen women for coercion, domestic violence and trafficking risks. They have no incentives to do that because it would slow them down and potentially expose them to liability if they fail to act to protect potential victims. They also have a terrible track record of not reporting offenses against minors, and they have resisted efforts to include their staff under mandatory reporting laws. That shouldn’t stop efforts to pass laws requiring waiting periods, mandatory counseling and screening for risk factors. But we have to keep pressure on government agencies to hold the clinics accountable.

More than anything we need to press for greater restriction on the availability of abortion pills. There are very significant risks to women who take these pills, even according to the approved protocol. There have to be rules in place that eliminate telemedicine and mail order abortions as well as require multiple in-person doctor visits, to provide some protection against the inherent risks and potential for abuse and to provide potential off-ramps for women being victimized.

There’s a crucial case before the Supreme Court right now on the regulation of abortion pills. Regardless of how the court rules, the ultimate decision on abortion pill regulation will be with the FDA, Congress and state legislatures. We need to keep making the case to politicians and regulators that these pills are dangerous and must be kept on a tighter rein.

Charlie Camosy is professor of medical humanities at the Creighton School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska, and moral theology fellow at St. Joseph Seminary in New York.

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