Locking up pregnant women: the new cure for mental health problems?

As Pregnancy Justice’s newest commentary in RH Reality Check and the Huffington Post makes clear, state laws treating fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as legally separate from the pregnant women who carry, nurture, and sustain them creates the basis for denying pregnant women their personhood and their right to be treated like other human beings.

In December of 2010, Bei Bei Shuai, a thirty-four year-old pregnant woman living in Indiana, attempted to end her own life. She did so in one of the slowest and most painful ways possible: she consumed rat poison. With help from friends who intervened, however, she made it to a hospital and survived. The premature newborn she delivered by undergoing cesarean surgery did not. An Indiana prosecutor’s response has been to charge her with the crimes of murder (defined to include viable fetuses) and feticide (defined to include ending a human pregnancy at any stage). She has been arrested, denied bail, and will, unless bail is granted, be imprisoned for as long as her case proceeds through the court system.

Pregnancy Justice, through Indiana based counsel Kathrine Jack, is working with Indiana defense attorney Linda Pence of Pense Hensel LLC, to secure Ms. Shuai’s freedom and to defend the basic idea that when the person suffering from mental illness, severe depression, or any other health problem happens to be a pregnant woman, she does not lose her right to be treated like other human beings experiencing the same problems.

Because Ms. Shuai is being held without bail, there has been extreme time pressure to get motions and briefs filed urging the court to dismiss the charges. Yesterday, Pregnancy Justice with attorney Linda Pence filed a motion to dismiss the charges. Working with a wide range of allies and concerned health care organizations and professionals, two amicus briefs were also filed today in support of the motion. One amicus was filed by Indiana attorney and doctor, David Orentlicher, on behalf of medical and health advocacy organizations and numerous health experts from across the country. Another amicus brief was filed by and on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union and its Indiana affiliate.

We hope the court will listen, and dismiss these charges that are not only cruel to Ms. Shuai, but, if upheld would set a precedent that would make every pregnant woman in Indiana criminally liable for the outcome of her pregnancy. In addition, if Ms. Shuai’s prosecution is upheld, it leaves no doubt that women who intentionally end their pregnancies will go to jail as murderers if Roe is ever overturned.

This prosecution flies in the face of all medical and public health recommendations regarding the most effective ways to address suicide attempts, drug dependency problems, and health problems pregnant women experience.

This case, like the many others that Pregnancy Justice is working on, demonstrates why it is vital to expand pro-choice work beyond defending the right to have an abortion. As I had the opportunity to explain in my recent talk for the, William H. Gates Public Service Law Program at the University of Washington School of Law, those committed to Reproductive Justice and Human Rights must also defend the pregnant women who sometimes have abortions and far more often become pregnant, go to term, and bring forth life.

We hope you will support us in this effort.