In the United States, mothers can already be jailed if doctors suspect drug use by the pregnant woman behind a stillbirth. Then the charge is murder. Even in liberal California, a young woman’s case made headlines.
Eight weeks after her son’s miscarriage, a 25-year-old woman was arrested and jailed for 16 months. Now many Americans fear that with the forthcoming changes in the law and abortion bans, such exceptional cases could soon become the norm.
In September 2019, Chelsea Becker was homeless – and eight months pregnant. She spent countless nights in the stairwells of motels, says the now 28-year-old. Due to severe bleeding, she was transported by ambulance to a clinic northwest of Los Angeles. Her son was born there a few hours later.
Doctors, nurses and caregivers treated her with distrust from the start, Becker reported in the daily newspaper The Guardian. After giving birth to her baby, she received a blood transfusion. Traces of illegal methamphetamines were found in Becker’s blood samples. The medical staff called the police.
One of the investigators immediately spoke out in favor of prosecuting Becker. A few weeks later she was arrested at her mother’s house. “The policeman came with a sniffer dog and aimed a large machine gun at me,” Becker told the Guardian. “So I came out and surrendered.”
“Murder of a human fetus” was the charge of the public prosecutor’s office: the pregnant woman acted maliciously and willfully killed her unborn baby. But there is no evidence of Becker’s miscarriage due to drug abuse, countered her lawyers. Rather, their medical files showed a whole series of infections, the lawyers confirmed – all of them could have led to the abortion. Quite apart from that, according to the attorneys, such prosecutions are not even permissible under California law.
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Two doctors on the witness stand went on to say that there is currently no clear scientific connection between the use of methamphetamine and a stillbirth. In addition, the doctors emphasized: In the USA, around twenty percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriages – often for unexplained reasons.
Finally, a judge dropped the case in May 2021. But before the trial began, the accused spent 16 months behind bars. Because Becker had reached out to Keith Fagundes – the only district attorney in California who prosecutes women after miscarriages.
A year earlier, he had already accused Adora Perez of murder – Fagundes claimed that her still birth was also due to the use of drugs. Perez had given birth to a dead child in the same hospital as Becker.
The prosecutor referred to Section 187, which states that wanton killing of a fetus can be considered murder. California lawmakers added article 1970 to the penal code to better protect pregnant women from physical assault by others.
Fagundes, on the other hand, interpreted the paragraph according to his own ideas – and used it to imprison mothers. Perez had to spend four years in prison. The charges against her were dropped earlier this year.
While both cases are considered exceptions in liberal California, they are not in more conservative parts of the United States. Although abortion has been legal here since 1973, more than 1,700 pregnant American women have been criminalized by 2020, according to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), often on the grounds that the rights of a fetus are the same as those of a person.
In some cases, pregnant women have been prosecuted for things like not getting enough rest, falling down stairs, or exposing themselves and their unborn children to dangerous exhaust fumes, the nonprofit association’s report says. Some women have even been accused in court if they are the victim of a shooting or if they fail to get to a hospital in time to give birth.
If the US Supreme Court now, as expected, abolishes abortion rights, similar prosecutions would increase at breakneck speed, prophesied the lawyer Emma Roth. Many people don’t even know that this is already happening today – even in democratic states like California, according to the NAPW lawyer in the Guardian. “It doesn’t take much – often a radical prosecutor is enough.”