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December 9, 2010

Protecting Dignity – Building Coalitions

We believe that a pregnant teenager who experiences a stillbirth deserves dignity and the power of a broad coalition behind her.

That is why when NAPW and Mississippi counsel Rob McDuff and Carrie Jourdan filed the opening briefs in Rennie Gibbs' case in the Mississippi Supreme Court, we didn’t do it alone. Five amicus briefs representing 70 local, state, national, and international organizations were filed in support of Ms. Gibbs, and in support of dignity, human rights, and the health of women and children. We want to highlight for you this spectacular collaborative effort.

At age 16, Ms. Gibbs experienced a stillbirth. A medical examiner–whose qualifications have already been questioned by members of the Mississippi Supreme Court–claimed, without scientific basis, that Ms. Gibbs' drug use caused the stillbirth. Ms. Gibbs was arrested and charged with depraved heart homicide. Today, many stand with her.

For the first time in the history of litigation of these cases, an amicus brief was filed on behalf of organizations and experts in the field of pregnancy loss. The brief was filed by attorney Sara Ainsworth for Legal Voice and attorney James M. Priest, Jr. of Gill, Ladner & Priest PLLC. Written with the help of anthropologist and stillbirth expert Professor Linda Layne, this brief makes clear that "treating as a murderer a girl who has experienced a stillbirth serves only to increase her suffering. Moreover, it reinforces the pervasive societal failure to acknowledge the grief that accompanies a stillbirth, and fails utterly to address the root causes of pregnancy loss."

For only the second time in the history of litigation of these cases, an international human rights amicus brief was filed, making clear that re-writing Mississippi’s murder statute to apply to pregnant teenagers who experience stillbiths violates core human rights principles. This brief, filed by attorneys at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative and by attorney James W. Craig, explained that "prosecuting Ms. Gibbs for murder contravenes Mississippi’s fundamental constitutional commitments to respect human dignity," as well as contravening state, federal and international law.

The Mississippi Psychological Association (MPA), represented by attornies James L. Robertson and D. James Childress, also filed an amicus brief. The MPA noted that the crime Ms. Gibbs was charged with, "depraved-heart" homicide, cannot possibly fit her circumstances. The MPA explained that pregnant women who use cocaine do not do so "to harm the fetus but to satisfy an acute psychological and physical need for that particular substance." As a result, such women "may not fairly be said to have a ‘depraved heart,’ much less may they be said to have acted by reason of having a ‘depraved heart.’"

The Drug Policy Alliance and the Mississippi Youth Justice Project filed an amicus brief on behalf of numerous medical and public health organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Mississippi Human Services Agenda. This brief explained that Ms. Gibbs' prosecution "cannot be reconciled with evidence-based, peer-reviewed, medical and scientific research, nor with the clear and explicit language of Mississippi law." This brief emphasized the harm that such prosecutions do not only to maternal health but also to fetal and child health.

The National Women’s Law Center, with attorney Cliff Johnson of Pigott Reeves Johnson, filed an amicus brief representing numerous groups, addressing the longstanding history of discrimination against women, particularly pregnant women, that influences cases like these. The brief explained that the prosecution of Ms. Gibbs "presents an untenable infringement on a woman’s right to become pregnant and continue that pregnancy without fear of punishment if she cannot guarantee a healthy birth."

There is no guaranteed outcome in this case. We are hopeful, however, that we can persuade the Mississippi Supreme Court to protect Ms. Gibbs from a cruel prosecution and protect all pregnant women from a new, judicially-created law that would permit the prosecution of pregnant women who suffer miscarriages and stillbirths, pregnant women who fail to conform to their doctors’ expectations regarding pregnancy, labor, and delivery, and pregnant women who need to end their pregnancies.

Lynn M. Paltrow