Pregnant woman torso with hands in cuffs against blue background

Prosecutions of Miscarriages Are Ramping Up and Becoming Even More Harrowing

While the overturning of the rights afforded by Roe v. Wade rightfully remains top of mind for many American women, a related issue continues to threaten the safety, privacy, and self determination of American women: the increasing trend of prosecuting miscarriages.

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Right now, Brittany Watts, a 33-year-old woman in Ohio without any prior criminal record, is being tried for “abuse of corpse.” The woman miscarried at home, on her toilet. While it is not clear whether it was a wanted pregnancy, a forensic pathologist’s examination found that the fetus died of natural causes, with ruptured membranes that had made the fetus non-viable. 

As shocking and terrifying as the case against Brittany Watts is, she is far from alone. The prosecution of women for miscarriages is on the rise in the U.S. This is especially the case in states where “fetal personhood” laws are on the books. In Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, cases against women for miscarriage have seen a sharp rise and have sometimes involved sharing women’s medical records with law enforcement without their knowledge. 

In Nebraska, too, women’s privacy was violated in order to undermine bodily autonomy. Facebook messages between mother Jessica Burgess and her then-17-year-old daughter Celeste were used to prosecute the pair for Celeste taking an abortion pill to end her pregnancy. Under Nebraska’s stringent abortion laws, abortion is illegal after 12 weeks of pregnancy, and Celeste was 20-weeks pregnant. Celeste was sentenced to 90-days in prison and her mother is now serving a two year term. 

By far, the population most vulnerable to prosecution for miscarriage is women of color. Even before Oklahoma began restricting abortions, the state prosecuted a 20-year-old Native American woman, Brittney Poolaw, for miscarriage of a 17-week-old fetus. She was eventually sentenced to four years in prison. Her conviction hinged largely on a positive drug test, though it was not conclusively proven that the drugs caused the miscarriage. 

According to the Marshall Project, since 1999, more than 50 women have been prosecuted for miscarriage because of positive drug tests. Because no definitive link has been made between the drug use and fetal death, it stands as a chilling example of a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (the idea that because one event occurred after another, they must be linked by cause and effect).

Apparently, logic is out the window in the interest of controlling women’s bodies. 

Research makes clear that while this terrifying trend is a threat to all women, low-income women and women of color are most vulnerable. They are more likely to be prosecuted, more likely to be sentenced, and more likely to serve longer sentences. The charges brought against these women are purportedly in defense of life, but these trials over miscarriage suggest that the lives of women are expendable and less valuable than the unborn.

(featured image: Stock photo/Getty Images)

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