Policy Analysis: When Self-Abortion is a Crime – Laws that Put Women at Risk

July 5, 2017
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Expanding Abortion Access

The legal status of abortion has changed throughout American history – from legal to illegal and back to legal again. However, women seeking to end an unintended pregnancy have always done so, whether it is legal or not. Our white paper, “When Self-Abortion is a Crime: Laws that Put Women at Risk,” documents this history in New York and assess whether there is any justification for the state’s criminal abortion ban. The paper also analyzes the ban’s real impact on women’s health and lives.

New York is one of the handful of states that criminalizes a women’s decision to induce her own abortion. Originally passed in the 1800s, these antiquated measures remain in force today. This law means that New York sits at the crossroads of the newest attack on women’s rights: the investigation and prosecution of women for seeking to end their own pregnancies.

Across the country, abortion opponents have increasingly used laws like New York’s to investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate women. Even in some states where self-abortion is not an explicit crime, overzealous prosecutors have been over-reaching with other criminal statutes to punish women who act to end their own pregnancies. Women have been arrested and prosecuted in least 17 cases for self- abortion – including five in New York alone – though most of cases did not end in convictions.

Laws that threaten women with jail time for self-managing an abortion do not deter women from ending their pregnancies; they serve only to harm women by deterring them from seeking out accurate information about their options in advance or medical care if they need it afterwards.

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