15-Year-Old Girl Faces Life in Prison for a Miscarriage? Why Conservatives Are Criminalizing Pregnant Women
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"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 fetus 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 fetus 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."
From protection to punishment
At least 38 of the 50 states across America have introduced fetal 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.
Ed Pilkington is the Guardian's New York correspondent. He is a former national and foreign editor of the paper, and author of Beyond the Mother Country