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Idaho woman's case marks a key abortion challenge

The plaintiff aborted her fetus at home after about 20 weeks, using pills purchased over the Internet from an out-of-state doctor. She represents a discomfiting situation for both sides of the debate as her civil suit takes on the state's strict laws.

June 16, 2012|By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

McCormack filed suit and persuaded U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill to issue a preliminary injunction preventing the county from bringing any new charge, against her or others, until the constitutionality of the law is resolved in federal court.

McCormack's lawyer, Richard Hearn — who happens to be a doctor — has taken the unusual step of entering the case as a plaintiff himself, a tactic he hopes will allow him to also challenge the "fetal pain" law and other statutes that might hold doctors criminally liable for prescribing abortion drugs.

"It doesn't do women any good to have a right to get an abortion if a state can punish any doctor who does it," Hearn said. "If there are doctors who will prescribe these pills in California, let the women in Idaho utilize them without having to fly to Los Angeles, because a lot of women like Jennie can't afford to go where those providers are."

The state attorney general's office earlier this year told the Legislature that the fetal pain law might not pass constitutional muster, but the state argues that it has the right to require that abortions be conducted by state-licensed physicians in safe settings.

McCormack "engaged in the abortion equivalent of self-help, and … neither consulted with a physician about her pregnancy nor even knew the identity of the [medication's] provider," Deputy Atty. Gen. Clay R. Smith argued in a brief.

While the Idaho case may seem unusual, McCormack's predicament is not. Across the country, 87% of counties have no abortion provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health. In Idaho, that figure reaches 95%. The availability of the abortion pill on the Internet suggests that many women may be quietly engaging in home abortions.

"Probably that's the case. We just don't know about it," Hiedeman said.

McCormack said the case had turned her into a pariah in Pocatello. She had to quit her job at a dry cleaner's after too many clients said they didn't want her handling their clothes.

"My neighbors gave me nasty looks when I'd go out in public. They'd get all whispery: 'That's her,'" she said. "My kids, they have friends that say stuff to them, and my older two, I feel that they're a little bit ashamed. And that's hard."

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