Pregnant Women’s Rights Taken? Feticide or Not?

A woman from Illinois, Bei Bei Shuai, left a note saying she was going to kill herself before taking a dose of rat poison. She’d just learned her boyfriend was married and leaving her–back to his wife and two kids. Bei Bei was pregnant at the time with his child.

The rat poison wasn’t enough to kill her. Later that day she drove to the hospital and was given an antidote. A week later, however, she had to have an emergency C-section. The doctors discovered her baby’s brain was bleeding, and it died a few days later.

A few weeks later, Bei Bei was formally charged with feticide (the act of killing a fetus). The question here is: if an expectant mother survives a suicide attempt but the baby doesn’t, is that murder?

The people who think no say the baby was born alive, Bei Bei had no intention of killing her baby, and suicide isn’t even illegal in Indiana.

The people who think yes say that in her suicide note, she clearly stated that she was going to kill her baby, along with herself, and that’s the smoking gun.

However, feticide laws were created to protect pregnant mothers against crime, not hold punishment against mothers themselves. Examples of this include a “chemical endangerment” law in Alabama, where over 60 mothers have been arrested for doing drugs while pregnant. And in Iowa, a woman was charged with attempted feticide because she fell down the stairs. (The initial police reports say she did it intentionally, which the woman denies.) Women’s advocates say there is an increasing trend of punishing expectant mothers for their behavior, and Bei Bei is the latest example.

Pregnant women are ending up victims of a law meant to protect them. Convicting Bei Bei (she awaits trial later this year) will set a dangerous precedent against pregnant women. Many worry that if a ruling like Bei Bei’s is upheld, pregnant women (fearful of being punished) will be more reluctant to seek help. Unless an expectant mother is perfect, it could make her a target.

The message to women is clear: you are criminally liable to the state for your conduct during pregnancy, even if you are mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or in the extreme¬†psychological state in which people try to kill themselves after a terrible life-destroying blow. (Suicide by pregnant women is not rare: it’s in fact the fifth leading cause of death for them.)

During initial court proceedings, it looks that there is an overly reasonable amount of doubt as to whether the rat poison actually killed the baby. It could have been a drug known to cause brain bleeding given to Bei Bei at the hospital. It could have been something in the blood transfusion that affected the baby. The pathologist who performed the autopsy claimed there was no scientific evidence to support it was the rat poison, and she didn’t bother to check for other causes of death. But regardless of what actually did kill the child, the principle at stake here is how we treat expectant mothers.

For now, Bei Bei must wait for the courts to decide if she’s a murderer or the victim of depression paying the price for a desperate act.

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