By JESS MCHUGH
January 7, 2012
On January 3, the New York District Attorney dropped charges against Yaribely Almonte for self-abortion. The 20 year-old New York City resident was arrested in November after a fetus that was later traced to her was found in the dumpster outside her apartment building. The building’s superintendent discovered the fetus in a plastic bag. Authorities said that Almonte admitted to having consumed an herbal tea that is marketed as a way to induce miscarriage in the 25th week of her pregnancy. This tea, called hierba de ruda, costs about $3 and is advertised prominently in many drugstores all over Washington Heights. The autopsy of the fetus, however, was inconclusive and authorities are not certain that the tea was the cause of death or whether the fetus was delivered alive and died sometime after birth.
The uncertainties of the autopsy, however, were not given as reason for the charges dropped; no specific explanation was released to the public. Self-abortion cases are rarely brought to trial and even more rarely convicted and thus, the outcome of this case is in keeping with the New York State’s legal precedent. In Almonte’s case, though, the issue is more complicated than the usually clear-cut lawful right to choose in the United States. Abortion is legal up until the 24th week of pregnancy in New York. So the question remains: in a country where abortion is legal and state where they are unusual accessible, why did Almonte wait until a week after the legal period had passed, and why did she ingest a miscarriage-inducing herb when she could have had a legal abortion? What barriers to medical care remain for New York women seeking to terminate a pregnancy?
Young pregnant woomen like Yaribely Almonte face disturbing obstacles in Washington Heights. One article in the Manhattan Daily News reports that in the predominantly black and Latino neighborhood in which she lived abortion was not considered socially acceptable. In Washington Heights and other communities like it, the stigma of abortion—often rooted in religious belief—
coupled with high poverty rates can put young women in an impossible situation. We cannot forget that, despite legal protections, even outside of the sub-culture of Washington Heights it is often extremely difficult to seek support and medical care when faced with unplanned pregnancy.
The dismissal of the charges against Almonte is a complicated victory for feminists. Almonte’s case draws attention to the fact that despite the existence of legal abortions, some women still feel forced to terminate unwanted pregnancies through their own means. Whether because of cultural stigma, insufficient funds, or lack of access to clinics, pregnant women—particularly those coming from marginalized neighborhoods—are not always given the support they need to exercise their right to reproductive choice safely. One would think the U.S. had moved beyond the era of dangerous self-abortion methods, the wire hanger a system of a darker time, but this case and others like it prove the continuation of such practices. As Andrea Miller, president of Pro-Choice New York, commented that in this case, “It should have been a public health matter not a criminal matter.”
Jess McHugh is a freshman in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.