Physician-assisted abortion after the 24th week of pregnancy is illegal in Massachusetts. Self-induced abortion, as it turns out, is illegal at any point during pregnancy, and could even lead to homicide charges.

An 18-year-old woman was potentially facing a homicide charge for aborting her fetus, but prosecutors today announced they would instead merely pursue the felony charge of illegally procuring an abortion. The charge is based on a statute that dates back to the 1840s and applies to all stages of fetal development. Prosecutors claim that the woman’s fetus may have been as much as 25 weeks old, suggesting that she would not even have been able to obtain a legal abortion.

Perhaps needless to say, the woman in question is neither white nor economically privileged. She is an 18-year-old, dark-skinned, Dominician immigrant with limited English who had been in this country a little over a year, didn’t have money for an abortion, and was afraid to tell her mother she was pregnant. She told police she suspected she was pregnant because she felt something moving inside her. The father is believed to have left the country.

This young woman – like many Latinas, according to media reports – took the ulcer treatment drug misopostrol (brand name Cytotec) as a cheap way to induce a miscarriage. Abortion is illegal in many Latin American countries, and at about a dollar per pill, Cytotec is an attractive alternative. After prolonged stomach cramps, the teenager went to a hospital in Lawrence, Mass., delivered the baby, and fled. The baby died shortly thereafter, and its mother was reported to police when misopostrol was found in its urine.

Apparently a threat to society, the woman was jailed until her $15,000 bail was paid by family. If convicted of the lesser charge of illegal abortion procurement, she will face up to seven years in prison.

She has also had her name plastered all over major newspapers. As a defendant against a felony charge, she does not benefit from the HIPAA medical privacy laws that normally apply to patients who have physician-assisted abortions.

The only other woman who has been prosecuted for a Cytotec abortion in the United States is a Mexican immigrant who was sentenced to four months in prison in South Carolina in 2002.

Additionally, in case you didn’t hear:

* Massachusetts lost an important abortion rights supporter with the death on March 10 of Justice Martha B. Sosman. She died of breast cancer. Sosman had served on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court since 2000 and was formerly a board member of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. On March 21, Gov. Deval Patrick formed an 18-member commission to seek her replacement.

* Companies in seven Midwest states have received a ruling that failure to cover women’s contraception in their health insurance plans is not sex-discriminatory under Title VII. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit provided the ruling on March 15. The text of the decision reads, in part: “Union Pacific’s health plans do not cover any contraception used by women such as birth control, sponges, diaphragms, intrauterine devices or tubal ligations or any contraception used by men such as condoms and vasectomies. Therefore, the coverage provided to women is not less favorable than that provided to men. Thus, there is no violation of Title VII.” The logical error, as far as I can see, rests in the assumption that devices that prevent one from putting a fetus inside another person are on a par with devices that prevent a fetus from growing inside oneself. But no one asked me. Union Pacific’s health plans, by the way, do cover Viagra.

On the story of the seven years for self-induced abortion:
Women’s Space/The Margins
Boston Globe

On the story of Martha Sosman:
Boston Globe

On the Eighth Circuit ruling against coverage of contraception:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has the full text