(MintPress) – Hundreds of pregnant women have been arrested, convicted, jailed, detained in mental institutions or forced to endure court-sanctioned caesarean sections. While recognizing there’s a need to protect the rights of the unborn child, have we gone too far and made “bad moms” a criminal offense, or worse, murderers?
Pregnant women like Maria Guerra are not treated as ordinary people: When they may make poor choices, the law can inflict severe penalties that are usually reserved for hardened criminals and repeat offenders.
Maria Guerra was jailed for a DUI, even though her blood alcohol was below the legal limit. Judged to be a danger to her unborn child, Memphis law enforcers put her behind bars.
Guerra was driving in a car when she crashed. Her blood alcohol content was only half the legal limit, yet, she was charged with DUI-child endangerment with a child under 18. All this, because she told an officer she is four months pregnant.
Under Tennessee law women can be charged with child endangerment even if the child is still at the unborn stage. The courts determined that a viable fetus starts at 24 weeks or five months, and Maria Guerra was four months pregnant. In normal circumstances, a DUI for a first-time offense in Tennessee could mean removal of one’s license for 30 days, not jail.
“Fetal homicide laws have made it impossible for women to have a personal or mental problem while pregnant,” said Clare Letiscote, Women in Prison support group. “It’s as if the court closes its eyes to everything but the unborn baby, which is unfortunate because most women penalized by this law are just crying out for help.”
Second class status
In a report published by The National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) it recognizes the systematic failure by courts and authorities to give pregnant women any rights whatsoever.
“The restrictive statute is creating a ‘Jane Crow’ system of law, in which pregnant women have a second-class status,” said Lynn Paltrow, author of the report and NAPW’s executive director.
The report documents more than 400 cases of both criminal action against pregnant women and forced medical interventions, documenting court orders issued requiring women to undergo procedures like blood transfusions or caesarean sections against their will.
Lynn Paltrow said: “The focus on the health of an unborn child has stripped pregnant women of their rights.”
Working with women in prisons, Clare Letiscote has witness the horrors of court interventions.
“These women need help, not jail,” she said. “In California we have a huge meth problem in the inner cities and ghettos and in our prisons. Most meth-addicted women who are brought to the court on first-time charges will often have rehab as a part of the sentencing. But pregnant women who are addicted to meth can be, and are sectioned, under mental health.
“They are locked away with women who have violent psychotic tendencies. These places are not suitable for pregnant women with withdrawal symptoms; the pregnant bump is a target to the mentally disturbed, who often want to stab it,” Letiscote said. “So how the hell is this protecting the unborn child?
“Courts need to wake up. Their actions of imprisoning pregnant women in mental institutions or forcing a woman to a caesarean section before her due date is harming the baby and the mother.”
Fetal homicide laws are now in statute in 38 states. The law gives indisputable rights to the unborn child, above those of a pregnant woman. When first introduced, the laws provided harsher punishments or additional murder counts for those whose actions resulted in the death of a mother and her unborn baby. Today, it can be used for punishing the mother.
Death of an unborn baby
Fetal homicide laws still address domestic violence and violence toward women cases, but also looks at a lot more. Unfortunately, the law’s wide-ranging agenda not only looks at the issue of assault and murder; this law also considers suicide as a type of murder, if the suicidal woman is pregnant.
Bei Bei Shuai, was eight months pregnant when her boyfriend and child’s father suddenly ended their relationship. Distraught, Shuai, who worked at a Chinese restaurant in Indianapolis, took rat poison in an attempt to end her life. In her deepest depression, Shuai left a suicide note for her boyfriend, in which she declared that she was going to kill herself, and in doing so, she was taking his baby, the one he named as Crystal, with her.
That note is the basis of a criminal case against Shuai, who survived her suicide attempt and went on to deliver the baby, only to have the child die four days later. As a result, Shuai was charged with fetal homicide.
According to Linda Pence, Shuai’s lawyer, the fact that suicide can be considered a crime is also up for debate saying, “Under their interpretation, everyone in the state can kill themselves except pregnant women, who then face some of the most restrictive statutes in the book.”
Backing the father, fathers’ support groups have also joined the debate. Agreeing with Indiana’s state prosecution decision, Ryan, a member of a father’s group said: “Clearly she was not insane if she could write a note telling the father that she will deliberately kill his baby – it is murder.”
“No matter what went on in that relationship, the father still has rights. That was his baby too, so if she killed it she should be charged with murder.”
With emotions running high, Shuai’s case is now considered a landmark case testing moral and ethical grounds of the law. If Shuai is acquitted at her April 22 trial, it will raise the question of whether such prosecutions are constitutional, giving hope to other similar charges.
Pressure groups have been arguing against the narrow restrictive guidelines that this law imposes, expressing concerns that the law sees a single bad decision, or a mental state, as a criminal act.
Although the tide of opinions is in favor of this law, there are some states that are bucking the trend. Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers went to great lengths to defeat a fetal homicide bill from becoming a law for the state. Democrats killed a Republican bill aimed at prosecuting someone who kills or injures a pregnant woman’s unborn baby, and introduced their own measure on the issue. Although the bill removes laws protecting the fetus, it also recognized that there should be some protection for both mother and baby.
Praised by Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado, Cathy Alderman said, “We are grateful to our lawmakers who recognized the dangers of this bill.”
Critics of the fetal homicide law are concerned that more states and more states responding to public pressure will sign up for the law. Cases like Bei Bei Shuai and Maria Guerra highlight the extreme measures some lawmakers will go to protect the unborn.
“Lawmakers not just denying women their reproductive rights, you’re denying them the most fundamental aspects of due process of law,” said Lynn Paltrow of the NAPW. “Everyone feels like they are an expert on pregnant women. People feel that they are entitled to judge women when they become pregnant.”
It appears that everyone, from lawmakers, pressure groups and the general public can have their say on the issue and influence the law, everyone except pregnant women.
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