Enduring labor and giving birth to a stillborn baby is one of the most agonizing things a mother can experience. Imagine months of preparing, buying baby clothes and nursery furniture and pondering what life as a parent will be like only to have your expectations and hopes smashed to bits.
Or, imagine a woman who becomes pregnant accidentally and is worried about her ability to care for a newborn baby. She miscarries and gives birth to a stillborn. The guilt and fear in this situation is different, though no less painful. It can become even more complicated if she is compelled to hide the pregnancy from a disapproving society.
The heartbreak and stress of losing a baby to stillbirth can be both emotionally and physically excruciating for an expectant mother or couple. But what if, on top of all she has endured, she is then arrested for the murder of her stillborn child.
Appalling as it sounds, it happens not infrequently. In recent times, courts have used fetal homicide laws, intended to protect pregnant women from abuse, to criminalize those women. These cases aren't rarities. Between 2005 and 2013, at least 250 women were deprived of their civil liberties by legal authorities claiming to protect their fetuses.
12 19-Year-Old Jailed For 30 Years
In July, 2017, 19-year-old Evelyn Hernandez Cruz suffered a stillbirth, due to pregnancy complications. The pregnancy was the product of sexual assault. Under El Salvador’s strict abortion law, Evelyn was charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Evelyn had experienced severe abdominal pain and fainted in her bathroom. She didn’t even know she was pregnant. Authorities charged her based on the grounds that she did not seek prenatal care. El Salvador is one of five countries in which abortion is always a criminal act, regardless of the situation. A woman can be sentenced to up to 40 years.
"El Salvador's anti-abortion law is causing nothing but pain and suffering to countless women and girls and their families," Amnesty's Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas said.
11 It's Illegal To Fall Down The Stairs
In 37 states in the U.S., it's illegal for a pregnant woman to fall down the stairs. The law is intended to protect women and unborn babies from domestic violence, but Iowa resident Christine Taylor was arrested after falling down the stairs while in her second trimester.
When Christine went to the hospital after the accident, she confided to the nurse she, estranged from the baby's father, was feeling ambivalent about the pregnancy. Somewhere in there, hospital staff got the idea she'd fallen on purpose and called the police. Christine was arrested.
Charges of feticide were eventually dropped, because it only applies to third-trimester pregnancies. It begs the question, though, what do we, as a society stand to gain by putting these women in jail?
10 A Mother's Worst Nightmare
In November of 2015, Lauren Bull of Essex fainted on her bathroom floor and woke in a pool of blood. She had miscarried a pregnancy 18 to 20 weeks along. She was unaware she was pregnant.
Laura and her partner, Jack Walker, rushed to the hospital where Laura was treated for a collapsed womb. Then, when the fetus was found on Laura's bathroom floor, the couple spent the night in a cell, on suspicion of murder. The charges were later downgraded to "concealing the birth of a child" - a child they didn't even know existed.
Laura and Jack say the experience has been a "living nightmare." They are unable to bury their son and their neighbors are shunning them, in light of the pending court case.
9 Choice Is No Longer A Right
Melissa Ann Rowland was pregnant with twins in 2004, and she didn't want to have a C-section, even when doctors told her the babies would likely die without one. Melissa stood her ground and later gave birth to one healthy twin and one stillborn. She was then charged with murder and exhibiting "depraved indifference to human life."
A nurse reported that Melissa said she'd rather, "lose one of the babies than be cut like that." Whether or not you agree with that statement is not the issue. What is at issue is her right to make the decision. Marguerite Driessen, a law professor at Brigham Young University said, "It's very troubling to have somebody come in and say we're going to charge this mother for murder because we don't like the choices she made."
8 Four Years In Prison For Miscarrying
Maria Rivera worked hard to make ends meet and raise her son in El Salvador. She had been involved in a brief relationship and, for a time, though she was pregnant again. But, her periods, which had always been irregular, returned.
Some months later, Maria had abdominal cramps and began bleeding. She passed out on the toilet and woke up in the hospital. Staff asked her where the baby was. "I kept saying, 'What baby? I'm not pregnant," says Maria.
Unbeknownst to Maria, she had given birth in the toilet, where the stillborn was later found. She was charged with aggravated homicide. After over four years in prison, she's been exonerated and reunited with her son, but unfortunately, the prosecutor is putting together an appeal to send her back to prison.
7 A Mandatory Life Sentence
In 2006, Rennie Gibbs gave birth to a stillborn baby at 36 weeks. When it was determined the young woman was positive for blow, Mississippi prosecutors charged her with “depraved-heart murder,” which sounds more like a moral judgment than an indictment. There was no evidence the cocaine use caused Rennie’s stillbirth, but that didn’t seem to matter. The charge carries a mandatory life sentence.
70 different organizations across the United States have filed briefs in protest of Rennie’s incarceration. They point out that these feticide laws are touted by anti-abortionists as protection for mothers and unborn children, but the laws are doing no such thing.
One of the briefs says to treat “as a murderer a girl who has experienced a stillbirth serves only to increase her suffering.”
6 No Helping Hand
Bei Bei Shuai was sent to jail in 2011 for murdering her baby. What really happened? When Bei Bei was 34 weeks pregnant, her boyfriend abandoned her, and she became severely depressed. In an attempt at suicide, she ingested rat poison.
She was rushed to the hospital and survived. She gave birth the following week, but her baby died four days later. She was then charged with murder, on top of attempted suicide.
Bei Bei was obviously troubled and sending her to jail was both unproductive and prolonging of her suffering. Maybe they should’ve sentenced her to counseling. What are the odds Bei Bei’s pregnancy hormones influenced her becoming so desperate she wanted to kill herself? Anyone whose been pregnant will tell you those odds are pretty high.
5 Forced To Keep Her Dying Baby
Daniel and Taylor Mahaffey had been trying to have children for quite some time. After many failed attempts, they made it to the 20-week mark. At an ultrasound, however, doctors informed them, due to a complication, the fetus would not survive.
Devastated, Daniel and Taylor wanted their baby’s suffering to be over, but due to Texas’s “fetal pain law” they were forced to wait as the baby slowly died inside Taylor’s womb. Several days later, when Taylor began to bleed, the couple returned to the hospital, only to be told doctors still couldn’t intervene. “Eventually she was just screaming at them to get the child out of her,” Daniel said.
The couple could have been legally charged, if they’d decided to ease the suffering of their unborn child by speeding along an inevitable stillbirth.
4 The First Woman In History
In 2014, Purvi Patel showed up at the hospital bleeding, with an umbilical cord hanging out of her. She told doctors she'd had a miscarriage. Not knowing what else to do, she'd left the stillborn in a dumpster.
After the 24-week fetus remains were examined, Purvi was charged with felony neglect and feticide, because she'd taken an "abortion pill" (the same one some doctors use to induce abortion) to end the pregnancy, which was the result of an affair with a married man. She is currently serving a 20-year sentence.
Says Lynn M. Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, “This case shows how easy it is to sweep up women who’ve had miscarriages and stillbirths into a criminal justice framework.”
3 Does Crank Equal Murder?
Theresa Hernandez used methamphetamines on and off. No one disputes it, not even her. But when doctors found meth in her stillborn baby’s bloodstream, the real trouble started. Theresa was charged with first- and second-degree murder, based on child abuse.
This was in Oklahoma, 2007, and there were no state laws on the books that could have convicted Theresa of murder. She refused to accept a 25-year plea bargain, even though her public defender recommended she take it. She spent 3 years in jail waiting until finally accepting a plea of second-degree murder, with a sentence of no more than 15 years.
As an aside, there’s no evidence linking meth use with stillbirth, but even if there was, is prosecution the answer?
2 When The Law Fails Women
Michelle Greenup arrived at the hospital with bleeding and stomach pain. Doctors suspected she had given birth recently. Michelle admitted she had and that the baby had died.
Assuming she had failed to care for the baby, Michele was charged with second-degree murder and taken to jail. When her defense attorney obtained her medical records, however, it turned out the fetus was only between 11 and 15 weeks old - not viable outside the womb. Earlier, Michelle had been given a Depo-Provera shot by a heath care provider, which can cause miscarriage.
Michelle was released but only after she was coerced into pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for violating a law regulating disposal of human remains. The human remains law was designed to protect public heath, not to harass women who have recently miscarried.
1 The Hospital Can Hold Women Prisoner
In Florida, a woman appearing to be having a miscarriage was forced to stay in the hospital and undergo a C-section without her consent. Though she wished to return home to her two young children who were without her care, the hospital held her prisoner.
Despite their "heroic" efforts and the C-section, the baby did not survive. A Florida court later determined that detaining the woman was illegal, though, they did note that if she'd been further along in pregnancy and saving the baby more likely, it would have been perfectly fine.
Basically, Florida's message (and this isn't an isolated case for them) is that what a doctor determines is best for an unborn fetus trumps the mother's legal rights to decide what is best for her own health care and her family's.
Sources: aljazeera.com, WashingtonPost.com, TheDailyBeast.com, MotherJones.com, alternet.org, CBSNews.com, BirthAnarchy.com, TheState.com, DailyMail.co.uk, Prospect.org, wsws.org