Tennessee v. Anna Yocca
Anna Yocca was accused of attempting to terminate her pregnancy at home with a coat hanger. She presented at an emergency department and was admitted to the hospital. Some days later she consented to having cesarean surgery and gave birth to a premature baby. In December 2015, she was indicted on the charge of attempted first-degree murder. NAPW worked with Tennessee allies to support Ms. Yocca and her defense counsel. In February 2016, her counsel succeeded in getting the attempted murder charge dropped, but she was then charged with aggravated fetal assault under a 2014 set of laws (no longer in effect) enacted ostensibly as a mechanism for addressing pregnant women who used opiates and gave birth to babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome. Ms. Yocca’s prosecution under that law confirmed NAPW’s prediction that use of the fetal assault law would not, in fact, be limited to cases alleging drug use.
NAPW worked with Ms. Yocca’s defense counsel to prepare a motion to dismiss the fetal assault law charge, which was filed in late 2016. In December 2016, facing public scrutiny, the motion to dismiss and strong legal arguments against her arrest, prosecutors added three new felonies to Ms. Yocca’s charges, including aggravated assault with a weapon, as well as two laws originally adopted in the late 1800’s: attempted criminal abortion and attempted procurement of a miscarriage. Having been incarcerated for more than a year, in January 2017, Ms. Yocca pleaded guilty to attempted procurement of a miscarriage and was released immediately with time served, no fines, and no conditions of release.
This prosecution also illustrates that a broad range of criminal laws are available to prosecutors intent on finding laws they can use to prosecute women who have – or are perceived as having –abortions. The plea arrangement cannot be seen as validating the use of criminal law to address pregnancy or any outcome of pregnancy; rather it is an example of how criminal law can be used to pressure and intimidate people into pleading guilty to crimes only to avoid spending more time incarcerated.