A bogus charge of "feticide"

Rachel Cohen looks at the case of an Indiana woman who is being charged with murder and "attempted feticide" after she attempted to commit suicide.

Bei Bei Shuai is led into court for a hearingBei Bei Shuai is led into court for a hearing

BEI BEI Shuai was 33 weeks pregnant when her boyfriend suddenly dumped her. Though he'd promised to marry her and raise their child together, he abruptly confessed he was already married and then abandoned her in an Indianapolis parking lot, leaving her kneeling on the ground, crying.

With no family in the United States, the grief-stricken Bei Bei turned to the hardware store nearby. She purchased rat poison, which she swallowed, attempting to kill herself.

Bei Bei was hospitalized and survived the suicide attempt. Soon after, doctors induced labor, and Bei Bei gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Angel. Four days after she was born, Angel died.

Bei Bei suffered a second breakdown, spending a month on suicide watch in a psychiatric ward. She emerged from the hospital to stay with friends and begin picking up the pieces of her life.

But Indiana authorities had other plans: Bei Bei was arrested in March and charged with murder and attempted feticide.

Indiana is just one of a number of states--including Utah, Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa and South Carolina--that have recently pressed charges for "feticide" against women accused of endangering their pregnancies.

Bei Bei's case makes plain how heartless these charges are: a woman who attempted to take her own life is given no consideration for the pain that caused her suicide attempt. Instead, she's been sent to jail, without bail, where she faces the possibility of life imprisonment.

As Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, told Britain's Guardian:

This case has huge implications for pregnant women, not only in Indiana but across the country...If we allowed the state to put a woman in jail for anything that could pose a risk to her pregnancy, there would be nothing to stop the police putting in jail a woman who has a drink of wine or who smokes. So where do you draw the line?

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BEI BEI'S ordeal--and several recent cases in which extraordinary punishment is being pursued against women who do not appear to have intended to end their pregnancies--have rightly shocked and horrified many. But laws that can be used to criminalize even unintended miscarriages also target women who resort to desperate measures to their end pregnancies simply because access to abortion has been eroded beyond reach.

Michele Goldberg wrote for The Nation about one of the most high-profile such cases, in which:

Utah prosecutors and conservative politicians are determined to lock up the young woman known in court filings as J.M.S. for the crime of trying to end her pregnancy.

Her grim journey through the legal system began in 2009, when she was 17 and pregnant by a convicted felon named Brandon Gale, who is currently facing charges of using her and another underage girl to make pornography. J.M.S. lived in a house without electricity or running water in a remote part of Utah. Even if she could have obtained the required parental consent and scraped together money for an abortion and a couple of nights in a hotel to comply with Utah's 24-hour waiting period, simply getting to the nearest clinic posed an enormous challenge...

And so, according to prosecutors, in May 2009, in her third trimester and desperate, J.M.S. paid a stranger $150 to beat her in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. The assault failed to end her pregnancy, but that didn't stop police from charging her with criminal solicitation of murder.

The Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion still presents too great a barrier for states to outlaw abortion outright. Feticide laws, which exist in 38 states and at federal level, only ban termination of pregnancies outside the medical system.

Nonetheless, the right wing sees the codification of "fetal rights" as a stepping-stone toward overturning Roe. And anti-choice bigots make no effort to conceal their eagerness to prosecute as many women as possible in order to make the legal precedent seem more sound.

Samuel Casey, the head of the Christian Legal Society, explained, "In as many areas as we can, we want to put on the books that the embryo is a person...That sets the stage for a jurist to acknowledge that human beings at any stage of development deserve protection--even protection that would trump a woman's interest in terminating a pregnancy."

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THE RIGHT has been pursuing its case for "fetal rights" for years. As Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women argues, laws against "feticide" follow decades spent criminalizing women who carry pregnancies to term while addicted to drugs.

Dorothy E. Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, has written widely on the deeply racist way in which the right campaigned in the 1980s and 1990s to create a moral panic over "crack babies." She reports that at least 250 women faced charges for drug use during pregnancy between 1985 and 1995, and in 1990 alone, 34 states considered legislation against substance abuse during pregnancy.

Roberts points out that most of the women charged under such laws were African American--not because rates of drug use generally are greater among Blacks than whites, but because infant toxicology screenings tend only to be routinely performed in hospitals that serve poor communities and communities of color.

These charges separated women from their children and deterred pregnant women addicted to drugs from seeking treatment for fear of denial of their custody rights, and even imprisonment.

Throughout the 20th century, efforts to restrict women's access to abortion and birth control have come alongside brutal measures to restrict motherhood and fertility for African American, Puerto Rican, Native American and immigrant women. These seemingly contradictory lines of attack have worked to divide and conquer, and have been linked to the wider oppression of working and poor women and families.

The drive to criminalize drug use during pregnancy in the 1980s and 1990s accompanied the devastation of welfare and other social services. Today's "feticide" laws extend the assault on reproductive rights just as more and more women face unemployment, eviction, and the slashing of public services--in other words, just as the potential need for abortion grows. In fact, recent studies suggest illegal, self-induced abortions are on the rise.

An implicit premise to the criminalization of even accidental termination of pregnancies is that women ought to welcome the responsibility of parenthood, whatever the challenges, as part of our "innate nature" as caretakers. If women choose to end a pregnancy or are simply accused of failing to adequately protect a pregnancy, we can lay the fault at the feet of individual women as isolated failures. But the entire system fails women and children, particularly single mothers.

The right's professed concern for the "rights" of fetuses apparently ends as soon as babies emerge from the womb. The contempt of the anti-choice right for children born to poor and working families has been on display yet again in Congress, where the same Republicans and Democrats pursuing a litany of anti-choice legislation have also begun exchanging proposals to gut the public health care system, including Medicaid.

One in three births in the United States is covered by Medicaid, and those babies depend on the one year of automatic coverage they receive for crucial developmental care and for vaccinations.

Or take the example of Tanya McDowell, a single mother raising her 6-year-old son in Norwalk Connecticut without a home. When she used the address of a babysitter to register her son for public school, she was arrested and charged with first-degree larceny. The babysitter has been evicted from her residence in public housing as punishment for her role in the "crime." Mayor Richard Moccia boasted that these devastating penalties are justified because they "send a message to other parents."

It also sends the message that the combined assaults on working and poor women and families demands an answer.

Women like Bei Bei Shuai charged with feticide are victims of a cynical campaign that heaps punishment on top of personal tragedy. But the right also hopes to use the destruction of their lives to redefine the terms of all women's lives and rights.

The only way to stem the tide of outrageous prosecutions and attacks on women's lives is to organize a new fight to defend safe, legal abortion and all reproductive rights, and to build the struggles for economic justice and genuine equality for all.