Interpreting Mississippi's depraved heart murder statute to apply to the context of pregnancy will lead to absurd and dangerous public health consequences. Such prosecutions deter pregnant women from seeking prenatal care and drug and alcohol treatment. And they create a disincentive for pregnant women who do seek medical care from disclosing important informaiton about drug use to health care providers out of fear that the disclosure will lead to possible criminal sanctions.
Prosecuting women and girls for continuing to term despite a drug addiction encourages them to terminate wanted pregnancies to avoid criminal penalties.
Rennie Gibbs became pregnant at age 15, but the baby was stillborn in her 36th week. Via The Guardian:
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.
New conservative rule: If you have a drug habit, you must be a murderer. This, despite the fact that there is no evidence linking cocaine use to stillbirths. While it's certainly not a good idea to be using cocaine while pregnant, the fact remains that no scientific research directly links cocaine use to fetal death in late-stage pregnancy. It's far more likely that her poverty, young age, and probable lack of prenatal care had more to do with the stillbirth.
Gibbs' trial was set to begin on February 21, 2012, before Judge Jim Kitchens in Lowndes County. There have been no news reports on the trial. No reports that I can locate online as to whether it was postponed yet again. No reports whatsoever on trial progress. It is almost as if she has simply been swallowed into the system whole, and when it spits her out, who knows what the outcome will be?
If the case was postponed, that leaves a 20-year old woman behind bars while she waits to be tried for a crime that she never should have been charged with. If it wasn't postponed, how is it that a first-of-its-kind case with implications for women nationwide didn't deserve even a paragraph in the local paper?
Meanwhile, Alabama is prosecuting pregnant women and new mothers under their "chemical endangerment" law. The now-closed Alabama Women's Resource Network was tracking the cases until they shuttered at the end of 2011 halting their work to fight the prosecution of pregnant mothers on this basis. Who knows now? Perhaps as few as 40 and maybe many more are being consigned to prison without so much as a public notice.
And in general, this 2011 report from Think Progress on the twisting of fetal homicide laws around to prosecute the women carrying those babies:
Other prosecutors are twisting laws designed to protect pregnant women and their unborn children into attacks on childbearers themselves. At least 38 states have introduced fetal homicide laws that were intended to be used against violent attacks by third parties like abusive male partners. But in South Carolina, only one case has been brought against a man for assaulting a pregnant woman, while up to 300 women have been arrested under the law, according to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
These are the forgotten women, the victims of the war that's been going on for years and has just recently ramped up into the public eye. These are the women whose trials don't deserve a paragraph in the local paper, or an outcry from the general public. They're the ones who are impoverished and imperfect, whose lives are lived wholly in concert with the challenges of poverty and anonymity.
When we're fighting for the Sandra Flukes, let's not forget the Rennie Gibbs' of the world, or what the right-wing man-army is doing to them, quietly and without fanfare.