Prosecuting Pregnant Women

By Rachel Walden — July 20, 2012

This year, you may have seen news on the case of Jennie Linn McCormack, an Idaho woman who was arrested for obtaining RU-486 from the internet and inducing her own abortion, apparently a felony under Idaho law even though abortion and RU-486 themselves are legal. Jennie was reported to police by a friend she confided in about her experience.

And then there’s the case of Bei Bei Shuai, who ingested rat poison in an attempt to commit suicide. This was believed to lead to the death of her 8-month fetus, and Shuai was charged with murder, due to laws that make murdering pregnant women a double-homicide. Such laws were designed to apply to individuals who attack pregnant women, not to women themselves. Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women points out the inequality of cases like these:

‘The principle seems established for now that if you do something intended to end your pregnancy … that is murder,’ said Paltrow. ‘A suicide attempt will be treated as a public health problem for everyone except pregnant women and for them it will be treated as a crime.’

Reacting to cases like these, Soraya Chemaly at VitaminW provides 10 Tips for Staying out of Jail When You’re Pregnant, highlighting the absurdity of the actions pregnant women would have to take to avoid any possibility of endangering a fetus. For example:

Instantaneously upon conceiving end any addiction you may have. Even though you may have tried before,your pregnancy gives you superhuman abilities that mortals do not have. Don’t be fooled into thinking that substance abuse is a health issue.


Cure yourself of any illnesses. If you need to take medications regularly or have cancer treatments stop. These may chemically endanger your fetus.

Chemaly’s piece provides a lot of great links to examples where pregnant women with addictions, who ingested other harmful substances, who attempted suicide, or simply confided their doubts about a pregnancy to a healthcare provider have been subjected to investigation and prosecution.

The National Advocates for Pregnant Women focuses much of their work on issues of this nature, such as prosecution of pregnant women with drug addictions, and is a good source to follow for further news and discussions. They have written on the

Bei Bei Shuai case, and on women’s own personhood (which is often neglected in discussions of “fetal personhood” and related laws).

There is also a recent piece on TruthOut on their work, Criminalizing Pregnancy: How Feticide Laws Made Common Ground for Pro- and Anti-Choice Groups, which includes perspectives from the group and presents several relevant cases, such as that of a woman with an addiction who was jailed for two months in order to supposedly prevent drug use. As the author asks:

So, here’s the question: Should pregnant women who use these products be locked up until they deliver and monitored to ensure that they abstain? What about those who refuse to wear seat belts? How about women who defy doctor’s orders and don’t stay in bed, or continue to have sex after being told not to?

Stop snickering and rolling your eyes – it’s not as preposterous as it sounds.

What *is* preposterous is the notion that every action of pregnant women should be policed for its potential effect on the fetus, and that jailing women for such things is an appropriate measure rather than a gross violation of women’s human rights.

For additional reading, see the New York Times’s recent Magazine piece, The Criminalization of Bad Mothers.

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