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America's criminalization of women continues: Woman charged after allegedly self-inducing abortion

UPDATED: Murder charges against Kenlissa Jones have been dropped -- but a drug possession charge remains


Katie McDonough
June 9, 2015 9:50PM (UTC)

UPDATED June 10, 2015 at 2:45 p.m. EDT

The malice murder charges against Kenlissa Jones, a Georgia woman who told doctors she took abortion-inducing medication and whose fetus investigators claimed died after being delivered en route to the hospital, has been dropped. Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said Wednesday that the murder charge was dropped because "the law provides immunity to mothers in any act that may be committed against their unborn fetus.” (As WALB noted in its report on the announcement, officials did not announce any ruling on whether a birth occurred.)

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“This morning, I dismissed that malice murder warrant after thorough legal research by myself and my staff led to the conclusion that Georgia law presently does not permit prosecution of Ms. Jones for any alleged acts relating to the end of her pregnancy,” Edwards said during a news conference. “Although third parties could be criminally prosecuted for their actions relating to an illegal abortion, as the law currently stands in Georgia, criminal prosecution of a pregnant woman for her own actions against her unborn child does not seem permitted.”

According to a report from local station WALB, Jones, a 23-year-old mother to a young son, is alleged to have purchased Cytotec, a medication that can be used to terminate a pregnancy, from a retailer in Canada.

Jones has been released from jail, but still faces a misdemeanor charge for "possession of dangerous drugs," a misdemeanor related to her alleged purchase of Cytotec.

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ORIGINAL STORY

A Georgia woman who told doctors she took medication to self-induce an abortion was this week arrested and charged with malice murder, a felony that carries a possible life sentence.

According to a report from local station WALB, Kenlissa Jones, a 23-year-old mother to a young son, is alleged to have purchased Cytotec from a retailer in Canada. Jones’ brother told WALB that she went to the hospital because she “was in a world of hurt” after taking the drug. The WALB report indicated that the fetus, estimated at just over five months gestation, was delivered en route to the hospital and died 30 minutes later, but there has been no official statement on the delivery.

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In addition to the malice murder charge, Jones faces charges for possession of the drug she used to self-induce. Cytotec is the brand name of the drug misoprostol, used in the United States and elsewhere in combination with mifepristone in non-surgical abortion. Jones is alleged to have obtained the drugs through a Canadian retailer, but these drugs are also legally dispensed by clinics. Providers can safely dispense these medications through telemedicine, but the practice has become a target for lawmakers in states hostile to abortion rights.

A 2011 study that tracked nearly 800 patients in Iowa found that medication abortion was effective in 99 percent of telemedicine patients. There was also no difference in rates of complication, which are less than 1 percent, for telemedicine patients versus patients who had face to face counseling with a physician.

Jones’ arrest comes two months after Purvi Patel was sentenced to 30 years under Indiana's feticide law. Patel was arrested after she sought medical attention for hemorrhaging and a doctor saw that she had a protruding umbilical cord. That doctor, as Irin Carmon at MSNBC reported, is member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Patel maintained throughout the trial that she had miscarried and that the pregnancy had ended in stillbirth, but prosecutors used emails showing that Patel had ordered an abortion-inducing drug and texts alluding to taking them to convict her of feticide. (A toxicology report showed no traces of the drug in Patel’s system.)

Patel’s case marked the first time a woman was successfully convicted and sentenced under a feticide law, but she is not the first woman to face arrest, detention and incarceration for terminating or losing a pregnancy. In 2011, Bei Bei Shuai, also in Indiana, was charged with feticide after attempting suicide while 8 months pregnant. Shuai survived but lost the pregnancy. Shuai was incarcerated for a year before ultimately pleading to a lesser charge.

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In 2010, Christine Taylor, an Iowa mother of two, sought medical care after she fell down a flight of stairs. She did not lose the pregnancy, but was charged with attempted feticide after expressing distress about an argument with her estranged husband and uncertainty about the pregnancy to the nurse charged with her care. In 2004, a Utah woman experienced a stillbirth of one of her twins and was arrested and charged with criminal homicide after the state alleged that her decision to delay her cesarean was the cause of the stillbirth.

In each of these cases, arrest was triggered after the women sought medical attention. As states escalate efforts to restrict abortion and cut funding for family planning and other programs, women who miscarry or self-induce and fear complications are left in an untenable situation: seek medical care and face arrest or avoid treatment and risk injury or death.

“The issue here is not only access to healthcare when you need it beforehand, but also access to healthcare afterward,” Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate with the Guttmacher Institute, told Salon. “The idea of arresting a woman seeking medical care goes against the basic principles of medical treatment."

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Georgia’s Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards told WALD that Jones’ case will go before a grand jury because the laws involved, both state and federal, will need to be “explored.” But the risk of arrest and incarceration is a threat even in states without fetal homicide laws or laws banning self-induced abortion.

“There are some states that have specifically banned self-induced abortion,” Nash explained. “But there are other laws under which a woman could be charged. We know that women across the country have been charged with various crimes -- everything from practicing pharmacy without a license to fetal homicide.”

Women of color, immigrant women and low-income women are also disproportionately impacted by these laws, Nash added: “We see that the women arrested tend to be low-income and tend to lack access to services. We’re seeing a collapse in access of abortion services and medical care in general. We’re seeing women who do need medical care might not seek it because they might be arrested. None of this serves a public health need."

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Jones’ brother, Rico Riggins, has taken custody of Jones’ young son while she faces charges. Jones is being held without bond. Riggins says his family is “coping” the best they can. “We're hoping we get a lot of prayers," he told WALB. "I don't want anyone to be mad or upset with my family. At the end of the day they are doing the best we can."


Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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