Outcry in America as pregnant women who lose babies face murder charges

Ez - posted on 06/24/2011 ( 14 moms have responded )




Rennie Gibbs is accused of murder, but the crime she is alleged to have committed does not sound like an ordinary killing. Yet she faces life in prison in Mississippi over the death of her unborn child.

Gibbs became pregnant aged 15, but lost the baby in December 2006 in a stillbirth when she was 36 weeks into the pregnancy. When prosecutors discovered that she had a cocaine habit – though there is no evidence that drug abuse had anything to do with the baby's death – they charged her with the "depraved-heart murder" of her child, which carries a mandatory life sentence.

Gibbs is the first woman in Mississippi to be charged with murder relating to the loss of her unborn baby. But her case is by no means isolated. Across the US more and more prosecutions are being brought that seek to turn pregnant women into criminals.

"Women are being stripped of their constitutional personhood and subjected to truly cruel laws," said Lynn Paltrow of the campaign National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW). "It's turning pregnant women into a different class of person and removing them of their rights."

Bei Bei Shuai, 34, has spent the past three months in a prison cell in Indianapolis charged with murdering her baby. On 23 December she tried to commit suicide by taking rat poison after her boyfriend abandoned her.

Shuai was rushed to hospital and survived, but she was 33 weeks pregnant and her baby, to whom she gave birth a week after the suicide attempt and whom she called Angel, died after four days. In March Shuai was charged with murder and attempted foeticide and she has been in custody since without the offer of bail.

In Alabama at least 40 cases have been brought under the state's "chemical endangerment" law. Introduced in 2006, the statute was designed to protect children whose parents were cooking methamphetamine in the home and thus putting their children at risk from inhaling the fumes.

Amanda Kimbrough is one of the women who have been ensnared as a result of the law being applied in a wholly different way. During her pregnancy her foetus was diagnosed with possible Down's syndrome and doctors suggested she consider a termination, which Kimbrough declined as she is not in favour of abortion.

The baby was delivered by caesarean section prematurely in April 2008 and died 19 minutes after birth.

Six months later Kimbrough was arrested at home and charged with "chemical endangerment" of her unborn child on the grounds that she had taken drugs during the pregnancy – a claim she has denied.

"That shocked me, it really did," Kimbrough said. "I had lost a child, that was enough."

She now awaits an appeal ruling from the higher courts in Alabama, which if she loses will see her begin a 10-year sentence behind bars. "I'm just living one day at a time, looking after my three other kids," she said. "They say I'm a criminal, how do I answer that? I'm a good mother."

Women's rights campaigners see the creeping criminalisation of pregnant women as a new front in the culture wars over abortion, in which conservative prosecutors are chipping away at hard-won freedoms by stretching protection laws to include foetuses, in some cases from the day of conception. In Gibbs' case defence lawyers have argued before Mississippi's highest court that her prosecution makes no sense. Under Mississippi law it is a crime for any person except the mother to try to cause an abortion.

"If it's not a crime for a mother to intentionally end her pregnancy, how can it be a crime for her to do it unintentionally, whether by taking drugs or smoking or whatever it is," Robert McDuff, a civil rights lawyer asked the state supreme court.

McDuff told the Guardian that he hoped the Gibbs prosecution was an isolated example. "I hope it's not a trend that's going to catch on. To charge a woman with murder because of something she did during pregnancy is really unprecedented and quite extreme."

He pointed out that anti-abortion groups were trying to amend the Mississippi constitution by setting up a state referendum, or ballot initiative, that would widen the definition of a person under the state's bill of rights to include a foetus from the day of conception.

Some 70 organisations across America have come together to file testimonies, known as amicus briefs, in support of Gibbs that protest against her treatment on several levels. One says that to treat "as a murderer a girl who has experienced a stillbirth serves only to increase her suffering".

Another, from a group of psychologists, laments the misunderstanding of addiction that lies behind the indictment. Gibbs did not take cocaine because she had a "depraved heart" or to "harm the foetus but to satisfy an acute psychological and physical need for that particular substance", says the brief.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument put forward in the amicus briefs is that if such prosecutions were designed to protect the unborn child, then they would be utterly counter-productive: "Prosecuting women and girls for continuing [a pregnancy] to term despite a drug addiction encourages them to terminate wanted pregnancies to avoid criminal penalties. The state could not have intended this result when it adopted the homicide statute."

Paltrow sees what is happening to Gibbs as a small taste of what would be unleashed were the constitutional right to an abortion ever overturned. "In Mississippi the use of the murder statute is creating a whole new legal standard that makes women accountable for the outcome of their pregnancies and threatens them with life imprisonment for murder."

Miscarriage of justice

At least 38 of the 50 states across America have introduced foetal homicide laws that were intended to protect pregnant women and their unborn children from violent attacks by third parties – usually abusive male partners – but are increasingly being turned by renegade prosecutors against the women themselves.

South Carolina was one of the first states to introduce such a foetal homicide law. National Advocates for Pregnant Women has found only one case of a South Carolina man who assaulted a pregnant woman having been charged under its terms, and his conviction was eventually overturned. Yet the group estimates there have been up to 300 women arrested for their actions during pregnancy.

In other states laws designed to protect children against the damaging effects of drugs have similarly been twisted to punish childbearers.




View replies by

Rosie - posted on 06/25/2011




i'm torn as well erin. after 24 weeks and the fetus is viable outside the womb, i feel they should be punished in certain cases, that can actually be proved, like the rat poison one.
however, abortion is legal in this country up until viability, after that there has to be some medical reason-which does include mental distress. so maybe that rat poison case would be acceptable. either way, i know that talking about ending a baby's life is ever an easy decision.

Tara - posted on 06/25/2011




All I can say is that once again I am so thankful that I am Canadian.

[deleted account]

Makes me glad again that I would never live in those states and that I had my tubes tied. Pregnancy really opens you up to a lot of nastiness.

Becky - posted on 06/25/2011




The only one I can see as maybe being valid is the second one - where she drank rat poison. I mean, what did she think was going to happen to her baby?! On the other hand, if she was that desperate, then she'd be better off getting some help than going to jail.
I would like to see some sort of prosecution for people who continue to use non-necessary drugs or drink heavily during pregnancy, but it's a fine line. Especially when it comes to miscarriage, because how do you prove that the miscarriage was caused by the drug use? Many moms do everything right and still miscarry or have still births. If they're born with Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or fetal drug affect, well then, I do think moms should face some sort of charges for child endangerment.

Katherine - posted on 06/25/2011




Perhaps the most persuasive argument put forward in the amicus briefs is that if such prosecutions were designed to protect the unborn child, then they would be utterly counter-productive: "Prosecuting women and girls for continuing [a pregnancy] to term despite a drug addiction encourages them to terminate wanted pregnancies to avoid criminal penalties. The state could not have intended this result when it adopted the homicide statute."

SO true IMO. Women may start aborting because of this. A drug addiction IS a disease. Although it doesn't state whether or not she was a recreational user, and does it really matter anyways?
It doesn't even say they did an autopsy and found the cocaine to be the reason the baby died. There are too many holes.
This has gone too far. I agree there has to be more to these stories.

Ez - posted on 06/24/2011




Oh and I edited the OP. I have no idea why it posted the article twice when I copied it in. Stupid COM glitches.

Ez - posted on 06/24/2011




I'm so torn on this issue. Part of me thinks that once a foetus is viable outside it's mother (whether they determine that to be 22 or 24 weeks), it should be protected by law from any wrongdoing. Like the article explained, these laws were intially put in place assuming it was a third party harming the unborn baby. If an angry boyfriend/husband punched/kicked a 30 week pregnant woman in the stomach and caused a stillbirth, wouldn't we want him to be held accountable? So why is it ok for the pregnant woman to knowingly risk that same baby by taking drugs, drinking or engaging in some other dangerous activity?

But (and this is a huge but), no matter how unsavoury it is to think of a pregnant woman intentionally putting her baby at risk, my strong belief in women's reproductive rights makes me cringe at these cases. I also realise there is a very real possibility of these laws being used to push a pro-life agenda, which would be disastrous.

Lacye - posted on 06/24/2011




Mississippi is not a bad state to live in. As I said, she shouldn't be charged with murder but I do think she should be charged with something.

ME - posted on 06/24/2011




Awww man...I don't even know what to say to this stuff anymore...I'm glad I don't live in Mississippi, I guess...

Kate CP - posted on 06/24/2011




Yes, let's punish the women who just went through the trauma and pain of a stillbirth or a miscarriage by throwing them in jail! That's a FANTASTIC fuckin' idea. >:(

Lacye - posted on 06/24/2011




Erin, I live in Mississippi and I haven't heard about this yet so thank you for putting it up. I don't think the Gibbs girl should be charged with murder but I do think she should be charged with something considering she put her unborn child at risk by taking the drugs. I agree with the other two, I hope there is more to the story and I am going to see if I can find out more information about it. I do think that if a person purposely tries to kill their unborn child, they should have to face the consequences. No it's not born yet but that child depends on the mother to take care of them while they are in her body and afterwards. It's completely irresponsible.

[deleted account]

I agree with you, Sharon. I'm sure there's more to each story and that "more" is probably what defines it as murder.

Saying that, I think that if someone purposley puts their unborn child in a situation that causes a miscarriage/stillbirth they should be held criminaly accountable, but I think there has to be SOLID EVIDENCE against the person (for example, our oldest daughter's biological mother got angry at my hubby when she was 8 months pregnant and she threw herself down the concrete staris outside their apartment building in an attempt to kill the baby to get back at my hubby (way before we met). Fortunately, our daughter survived, but I feel that if she had suceeded in killikg the baby she should have been charged with murder - as it is, just thinking about it makes me so angry that I wish she could have been charged for attempted murder... There's also another example a while ago in Utah where a teenage girl who was 7 months pregnant asked her friend to punch her in the stomach to force a miscarriage http://www.abc4.com/mostpopular/story/Pr... yeah, some real winners there...).

[deleted account]

I truly hope that there is "more to the story" than what is actually released and reported. None of those stories add up right to equate murder. I'd like to know more detailed information on each case.

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