A 23-year-old Georgia woman is facing a charge of “malice murder” — a crime that is punishable by the death penalty — after allegedly ending her pregnancy by taking abortion-inducing medication that she purchased online.
The case presents just the latest example of a U.S. woman who’s been arrested and criminally charged for taking abortion pills, even though advocates on both sides of the abortion debate typically say that desperate women should not face jail time for attempting to end a pregnancy.
According to WALB-TV, Kenlissa Jones asked a neighbor to drive her to the hospital this past weekend because she was experiencing stomach pain. In the car, Jones delivered a fetus that WALB-TV reports was approximately five and a half months old, which died in the hospital about 30 minutes later. She was arrested after a hospital social worker told officers she had purchased abortion-inducing pills online.
In Georgia, abortions after the first trimester may only be performed in a licensed hospital, in a licensed ambulatory surgical center, or in a licensed abortion clinic. Georgia also has a 20-week abortion ban on the books that criminalizes pregnancy terminations after five months.
However, Georgia’s statute on feticide also explicitly states that a woman should not be charged with murder for attempting to end her own pregnancy.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), an organization that frequently represents women charged with allegedly harming their pregnancies, says that Jones’ case fits into a larger pattern of authorities abusing fetal homicide laws. As in Georgia, many of these state-level policies are carefully written to prevent the prosecution of pregnant women themselves. Nonetheless, these statutes are increasingly being used to punish women who have miscarriages or stillbirths, or who resort to illegal abortion pills because they feel they have no other good options. Some women have been charged with murder for allegedly seeking to harm their fetuses by using illicit drugs or even simply falling down the stairs.
In a statement released on Tuesday, NAPW — which is offering free legal aid to Jones — argued that the unfolding case in Georgia underlines the fact that the anti-abortion movement’s legal strategy will ultimately punish women in vulnerable situations. Criminalizing abortion, after all, allows pregnant women to be cast as suspects in the eyes of the law.
“We call on leading anti-abortion organizations, who have publicly and repeatedly said that they oppose punishing women for having abortions, to stand with Kenlissa Jones and against the growing use of criminal laws to punish women for abortions or pregnancy outcomes,” the statement noted. “People who seek medical attention for any aspect of pregnancy — including prenatal care, labor and delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion — should not fear arrest. There is no role for police or prosecutors in reproductive health.”
At least one anti-abortion group agrees. Genevieve Wilson of Georgia Right to Life told the Associated Press that this is the first time she’s heard of a woman being charged with murder for ending a pregnancy. “I am very surprised by the arrest,” Wilson said. “And I’m thinking that perhaps whoever made the arrest may not have known what the laws really are.”
Jones, who has a two-year child, is now being held without bond as state officials decide how to proceed with her case.
According to a study conducted by NAPW reviewing the prosecutions of women in relation to their pregnancies between 1973 and 2005, low-income women and women of color are disproportionately arrested under feticide laws. Black women are significantly more likely to be reported to authorities by hospital staff under suspicion that they harmed their unborn children.
According to Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards, the murder charges against Jones were dropped on Wednesday. “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. Jones still faces a misdemeanor charge of possession of a dangerous drug.