Prosecutors dropped a murder charge Wednesday against a Georgia woman who took pills to terminate her pregnancy, admitting that the state could not punish her for her actions against her unborn fetus.
Kenlissia Jones, 23, of Albany, Ga., was arrested Saturday after she gave birth in the back of a neighbor's Chevrolet Malibu on the way to a hospital. The newborn did not survive.
Five and a half months pregnant, she had taken four prescription abortion pills she ordered online from a Canadian pharmaceutical company.
After reviewing Georgia law, Dougherty County Dist. Atty. Gregory W. Edwards released Jones and issued a statement saying that he and his staff had concluded that a woman could not be prosecuted for any acts related to the termination of her pregnancy.
"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 an unborn child does not seem to be permitted," Edwards said in a statement.
"Applicable criminal law and statutes provide explicit immunity from prosecution for a pregnant woman for any unlawful termination of her pregnancy," he added.
Jones was released after prosecutors dismissed the charge of malice murder, which carries a punishment of life imprisonment or death. A misdemeanor charge of possession of a dangerous drug — the abortion pill, Cytotec — still stands.
Jones' family, who had no idea that Kenlissia was pregnant until Saturday, struggled Wednesday to comprehend what had happened.
"She found herself in a real dark place, and I know it was dark," said Tonya Riggins, 33, Kenlissia's older sister, who lives in Texas. "We were raised on Christian values. We believe in God. Maybe she should have made a better decision, but she felt trapped."
Kenlissia's father, Kenneth Jones, 52, who had visited her in the hospital before she was jailed, said he was upset, but had tried to be supportive.
"It was unreal," he said. "It was when I saw the baby. I just couldn't believe it. I was shocked. I really and truly think she could have told us, and we would have accepted the baby."
Jones said he was urging Kenlissia to seek counseling. "She's just not normal," he said. "Anybody who can take any kind of medicine that could harm not only their baby, but their own self, should be considered mentally disturbed."
Riggins, however, disputed the idea that Kenlissia is mentally ill, saying her sister was facing considerable social and economic challenges. Unemployed without reliable transportation, she was not financially stable. When she discovered she was pregnant, her ex-boyfriend wanted no involvement.
Her hospital and jail ordeal had only exacerbated her sense of crisis, Riggins said. "When I talked to her yesterday, her first words were, 'I got to find out where the baby is,'" she said. "I don't think reality has really set in."
Jones is not the first woman to face criminal charges for attempting to abort her fetus. In 2011, an Idaho woman, Jennie Linn McCormack, was arrested and charged with a felony for taking abortion pills in her second trimester. A judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence, yet McCormack went on to bring a class-action suit, asking a federal court to reject as unconstitutional the Idaho law that makes it illegal to obtain abortion pills over the Internet.
On May 29, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, affirming a lower court's invalidation of Idaho's self-induced abortion statute.
In Arkansas, a 37-year-old woman, Anne Bynum, is currently facing charges of one count of concealing a birth and one count of abuse of a corpse after a nurse administered a drug that would terminate her pregnancy. Bynum is free on a $20,000 bond. The nurse, who prosecutors say was not licensed to perform abortions, is set to appear in court this month on charges of performing an unlicensed abortion and providing an unlawful abortion.
As states have passed hundreds of laws that classify abortions as crimes, penalties have been explicitly directed at doctors and third parties, said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a legal advocacy group based in New York. Women who have abortions, however, have increasingly found their actions deemed subject to criminal punishment.
In Georgia — which in 2012 banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, the time after which antiabortion activists say a fetus can feel pain — antiabortion groups are uneasy about the idea of arresting women who violate abortion laws.
"The unbelievable fact is that if she had regrettably gone through a surgical abortion to end the life of the child, none of this would be questioned," said Genevieve Wilson, director of Georgia Right to Life. "The only difference is she went to the Internet. The child is just as dead either way.
"Women need to have support and solutions other than saying that killing the child is the answer," she added.
Yet arresting women for terminating pregnancies, Paltrow said, is not the answer. The antiabortion movement has promised that the goal is to protect women and not punish them, she said. "This arrest pulls away the facade of care and protection for women. Inevitably, if you characterize the outcome of pregnancy as murder, that will necessarily stick to the women too."
Though Paltrow was pleased that the district attorney dropped the murder charge, she said the arrest should never have happened. "That analysis should have been done before that woman was arrested, her mug shot was taken and her father and grandmother were called," she said.