Four days after Chinese immigrant Bei Bei Shuai gave birth to her daughter Angel, she rocked the baby in her arms for hours in an Indianapolis hospital room. There, in her mother’s arms, the newborn passed away.
Shuai is in another facility in Indiana now, but its Cell Block 3F in a Midwest jail. She’s been there for three months, awaiting trial for the murder of her baby.
It began on December 23, 2010. Shuai was planning to wed her boyfriend until she found out that he was already married and was leaving her and the unborn child behind. In a panic, Shuai tried taking her own life by ingesting rat poison she purchased from a hardware store. She was hospitalized, treated and gave birth to Angel on New Year’s Eve. Four days later, though, her child died from complications resulting from the poisoning. When doctors took Angel off of life support, they alerted the authorities.
Shuai spent a month in a psychiatric ward before trying to rebuild her life. Since March, however, she has been behind bars facing life imprisonment for murder and attempted foeticide.
“This case has huge implications for pregnant women, not only in Indiana but across the country," says American Civil Liberties Union attorney Alexa Kolbi-Molinas to The Guardian recently. "If we allowed the state to put a woman in jail for anything that could pose a risk to her pregnancy, there would be nothing to stop the police putting in jail a woman who has a drink of wine or who smokes. So where do you draw the line?"
And Kolbi-Molinas is quite right. Similar incidents are occurring across the United States. Women are facing life-long sentences in cases that transcends both anti-abortion legislation and civil rights.
In Mississippi, Rennie Gibbs is facing life behind bars after she suffered a miscarriage back in 2006. Gibbs was only 15 years old at the time, and while there is no concrete evidence linking her miscarriage to a cocaine abuse problem she suffered from, prosecutors have nonetheless charged her with “depraved-heart murder,” which carries a mandatory life sentence. The charge, which has been on the books for 130 years, is filed when someone is suspected of placing another in imminent danger of death.
“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,” says Gibbs' attorney Robert McDuff, a civil rights lawyer.
Nearly 40 states in the USA have fetal homicide laws on the books. These legislations were largely created so that third-parties could be prosecuted in cases of assault against an expecting mother, but according to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, only one man has been charged with the crime in South Carolina, while 300 women have been arrested under the law.
Amanda Kimbrough is facing a ten year sentence in Alabama after the state charged her with “chemical endangerment” after her premature baby passed away minutes after birth. The state attests that she had taken drugs during her pregnancy, though Kimbrough argues otherwise. “That shocked me, it really did,” Kimbrough tells The Guardian. “I had lost a child, that was enough.”
Authorities didn’t file charges against Kimbrough until six months after she lost her child. In the meanwhile, she is raising her other three children.
“It’s just living one day at a time, looking after my. . . other kids,” she says to The Guardian. “They say I’m a criminal, how do I answer that? I’m a good mother.”
“States pass feticide or similar laws in the wake of some horrible violence against a pregnant woman,” says Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “They claim to protect pregnant women, but prosecutors turn around and use these laws against women themselves.”
“This is the predictable and increasingly common result of a growing movement in this country to treat fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses as separate from the women who carry them,” she adds.
Indiana University law professor David Orentlicher tells The Daily Beast that these cases of prosecution are radical interpretations of inane laws. In the case of Shuai, charged with killing her daughter Angel, Orentlicher says that Shuai’s state doesn’t even prosecute people for attempted suicide, “so now this prosecutor is saying, ‘If you're suicidal, you better not get pregnant, because you might get thrown in jail.’ That to me is a very important constitutional problem.”
“We just don't miss a chance to kick a woman in the head,” adds author Jeanne Marie Flavin. “What happens is that when a woman needs counseling, or when a woman needs drug treatment, when a woman would most benefit from the support, we respond to her most harshly. We lock her up.”
“I hope it’s not a trend that’s going to catch on,” says Robert McDuff, Gibb’s attorney in Alabama, to The Guardian. “To charge a woman with murder because of something she did during pregnancy is really unprecedented and quite extreme.”
Unprecedented until now, it seems. With cases continuing to be opened up against the mothers, the ordeal looks far from over.