Oklahoma Prosecution and Conviction of a Woman for Experiencing a Miscarriage is Shameful and Dangerous

On Tuesday, October 5, Brittney Poolaw, a 20-year-old Oklahoma woman, was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree for experiencing a miscarriage at 17 weeks and sentenced to 4 years in state prison.

Last year, Ms. Poolaw experienced a miscarriage and went to Comanche County Hospital for medical help. On March 17, 2020, she was charged with Manslaughter in the First Degree, arrested and incarcerated. The court set a $20,000 bond, an amount she could not afford. Ms. Poolaw has been incarcerated since her arrest over 18 months ago.

Oklahoma’s murder and manslaughter laws do not apply to miscarriages, which are pregnancy losses that occur before 20 weeks, a point in pregnancy before a fetus is viable (able to survive outside of the womb). And, even when applied to later losses, Oklahoma law prohibits prosecution of the “mother of the unborn child” unless she committed “a crime that caused the death of the unborn child.”

Contrary to all medical science, the prosecutor blamed the miscarriage on Ms. Poolaw’s alleged use of controlled substances. Not even the medical examiner’s report identifies use of controlled substances as the cause of the miscarriage. Even with this lack of evidence, the prosecutor moved forward with the charge. On October 5, after just a one-day trial, Ms. Poolaw was convicted and sentenced to a four year prison term.

Ms. Poolaw’s case is a tragedy. She has suffered the trauma of pregnancy loss, has been jailed for a year and half during a pandemic, and was charged and convicted of a crime without basis in law or science. We are supporting Ms. Poolaw as she explores her legal options, and we are working to ensure that this type of injustice does not happen again.

We note that this trial and conviction has occurred during Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month established in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan. Its purpose is to recognize the grief of bereaved parents in an effort to demonstrate support to the many families who have suffered such tragic losses. Too often, pregnant women blame themselves for pregnancy losses no matter how clear it is that they could not have prevented it or done anything that would have guaranteed a healthy birth outcome.

Ms. Poolaw’s case is just one example of the troubling trend we are documenting in Oklahoma that replaces compassion and respect with criminal prosecution. In recent years, Oklahoma prosecutors, especially in Comanche and Kay Counties but also in Craig, Garfield, Jackson, Pontotoc, Payne, Rogers, and Tulsa counties have been using the State’s felony child neglect law to police pregnant women and to seek severe penalties for those who experience pregnancy losses. This use of prosecutorial discretion directly conflicts with the recommendations of every major medical organization, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, all of which know that such prosecutions actually increase risks of harm to maternal and child health.

Pregnancy Justice is mobilizing to stop these inhumane and abusive prosecutions of women for experiencing pregnancy loss.

About Pregnancy Justice:

Pregnancy Justice is a non-profit organization that combines pro-bono criminal defense, advocacy, public education and organizing to ensure no one is arrested or denied constitutional or human rights because they have the capacity for pregnancy, are pregnant, or because of any outcome of pregnancy, including abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth and birth.

For more information or to set up a media interview, please contact media@advocatesforpregnantwomen.org.

To donate to a fund for Ms. Poolaw to provide her with financial support for her personal use, please visit our dedicated fundraising page. This money will not be used to pay for legal representation; she is receiving free legal support through Pregnancy Justice and local counsel.