A Prisoner Is the Focus of an Abortion Debate

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- Five months pregnant, her belly just beginning to show through the orange prison jumpsuit, Karen Ptaschnik has become an unlikely lightning rod for the abortion debate here.

Ms. Ptaschnik, a 30-year-old single mother of three young children, is serving a 15-to-24-month sentence in the Luzerne County jail for selling cocaine and driving with a suspended license. This fall, when she told the prison authorities that she was pregnant and wanted an abortion, they said no.
Karen Ptaschnik

"We saw it as an elective procedure, not the emergency or necessary medical care we pay for," said Thomas Makowski, the Luzerne County commissioner. "Even though she said she would pay for it herself, we weren't certain she could. We're elected to represent a constituency, and this boils down to how you use taxpayer money."

Ms. Ptaschnik went to court, with the help of New York abortion-rights lawyers, and, in November a federal judge said that the county must pay for abortions as a necessary medical procedure.

Although the case broke no new legal ground -- the federal appeals court had previously upheld inmates' right to publicly financed abortions -- here in this staunchly Catholic area it has become a tangled saga of how abortion politics can play out far from big-city clinics and Washington policy debates.

Ms. Ptaschnik never had the abortion. At the Allentown Women's Center, awaiting the procedure, she changed her mind, worn down by months of harassment, she said, and beginning to feel the life stirring within her.

"I began asking for an abortion at four weeks," she said. "At that point it's not so real. But when you feel the baby move, it's very real."

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