Women Are Being Prosecuted for Losing Their Babies
In 2006, 15-year-old Rennie Gibbs’ unborn child died after 36 weeks. An autopsy of the fetus showed traces of a metabolite of cocaine. Her doctors informed the authorities that she had tested positive for drugs while pregnant and she was arrested on a charge of “depraved heart murder”—a legal phrase used when it’s alleged that a “callous disregard for human life” has resulted in death. For the last seven years, the case has bounced around in the Mississippi court system as her lawyers wage an extensive legal challenge. Today, Gibbs is still awaiting a trial that could yet send her to prison for life.
The abortion argument is one that has rumbled on noisily for over a century in this country. Gibbs’ case isn’t unrelated to the pro-life/pro-choice debate, but it’s more of a grim sideshow to it, in which laws originally set up to punish third parties who attack pregnant women and cause miscarriages have been used to punish prospective mothers. Another recent example is that of Bei Bei Shuai, who was pregnant when she tried to commit suicide by swallowing rat poison in 2010. Though she survived, her baby Angel died days after birth and Shuai was charged with murder.
Relatively speaking, these two cases have attracted more attention because both women have pleaded not guilty. Many other women have not had the legal support to fight against their charges and have pleaded guilty in order to obtain reduced prison sentences. After reading about Bei Bei’s case in 2011, I wanted to know more their situation and women like them. Lynn Paltrow runs a non-profit organization called National Advocates for Pregnant Women, based in New York. While it’s a small, it’s talking on a national level, getting involved in legal proceedings as well as educating young women so they are aware of their rights. She also campaigns against the personhood movement—a collection of pro-life groups seeking to establish separate constitutional rights for fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses.