A Tennessee woman faces attempted murder charges after trying to terminate her pregnancy in a state with some of the strictest laws against pregnant women. But unlike similar cases in the past, where women faced jail time for taking illegal abortion pills or simply miscarrying, Anna Yocca used a frighteningly archaic method to end her pregnancy: She inserted a bent metal coat hanger into her uterus.
After losing a great amount of blood, Yocca was taken to the hospital — where she delivered a 24-week-old baby boy. His wounds from may leave him permanently hooked up to an oxygen tank, according to local reports, and leaves Yocca facing attempted homicide charges.
These charges, which will bring Yocca to court on December 21, are based on a state law originally introduced to protect attacks against pregnant women. Tennessee is one of 37 states in total that have “fetal homicide” laws on the books. But, according to reproductive rights groups, these laws have morphed into a tool used by anti-abortion state legislators to punish women for seeking abortion.
Tennessee has a particularly broad version of a fetal harm law. Since 2012, it’s been illegal in Tennessee to cause “life-threatening harm” to a human embryo or fetus at any stage of gestation. As of last year, this now includes taking any illicit drug while carrying a child — a punishment that has spurred massive outcry among criminal justice and public health advocates.
“This is not really about arresting pregnant women because they use drugs. This is arresting women because they became pregnant,” Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told ThinkProgress last year.
This all-encompassing law also hurts women — like Yocca — who may have wanted a legal abortion, but couldn’t feasibly access one. There is no abortion clinic in Yocca’s town of Murfreesboro, TN, so she would have had to drive the 45 minutes to Nashville for a legal procedure. And, even then, she’d have to jump through the state’s stringent legal hoops to see it through.
In Tennessee, a woman seeking to end her pregnancy legally must visit a clinic for state-mandated counseling, then wait at least 48 hours before returning to have the actual procedure. These restrictive rules were further enforced by a 2014 amendment ensuring that nothing in the state constitution “secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.” Cherisse Scott, CEO of SisterReach, a reproductive justice organization based in Memphis, said that Yocca’s attempted abortion is a direct result of these recent laws.
“Our greatest fear has come to past, and it could have been avoided,” she said in a press statement. “Women are attempting to self-abort due to restrictive abortion and punitive fetal assault legislation. The Tennessee legislature is responsible for the coat hanger; however, Ms. Yocca is on trial and that is unacceptable.”
It’s becoming increasingly common for women unable to access a safe abortion — whether it’s because she can’t afford to miss multiple days of work or access transportation to get to a distant clinic — to take matters dangerously into their own hands. According to a recent survey, somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 women of reproductive age in Texas alone have tried to end their pregnancy entirely on their own, without any medical assistance. Most interviewed said they would have rather gone to a clinic if they could.
However, wire hanger abortions are now a relatively uncommon practice, and Yocca’s action evokes memories of a pre-Roe v. Wade reproductive health landscape where the hanger was a symbol for a woman’s life without access to a legal abortion.