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June 15, 2012

Truthout Covers NAPW and our Cases

Eleanor Bader discusses how NAPW's legal work broadens the debate beyond pro-life versus pro-choice and challenges both sides to come together to stand-up for the basic human rights of ALL women, a pro-lives movement.

Read her article here.

Criminalizing Pregnancy: How Feticide Laws Made Common Ground for Pro- and Anti-Choice Groups

Ask Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) what reproductive justice means to her and the answer is immediate: The right to have a child, as well as the right to end an unwanted pregnancy.

This dual focus differentiates NAPW from other pro-choice groups. Since its 2001 founding, the organization has not only worked to keep abortion legal, but has also organized against fetal protection and chemical dependency laws that pit women against the fetuses they carry and the babies they deliver. As it does so, it calls into question attitudes about race, class and parenting. NAPW further challenge policymakers to offer more than punitive solutions that most often penalize low-income women of color instead of addressing social problems that affect everyone.

One of NAPW's most pressing cases is that of Bei Bei Shuai, a 34-year-old Chinese immigrant who came to the United States more than ten years ago. Shuai was held in an Indiana jail for more than 14 months before being released on $50,000 bail in mid-May. Her crime? Attempting suicide when she was eight months pregnant. Shuai's story is a large-scale tragedy and begins with her betrayal by Zhiliang Guan, the man she'd hoped to marry. When Guan confessed to having lied to her - he was still married, not divorced as he'd told her, and planned to return to his wife despite having gotten Shuai pregnant - Shuai became so despondent that she ingested rat poison.

But she did not die. When friends discovered what she'd done, they took her to the hospital, where she was treated and the fetus was monitored. "She consented to everything the hospital suggested," Emma Ketteringham, NAPW's director of legal advocacy, reports. "She agreed to have a C-section and to let the hospital do whatever tests they wanted to do. On December 31, 2010, a baby, who Bei Bei named Angel, was born."

"At first it seemed like the child was okay, but after a few hours it became clear that she wasn't," explained Ketteringham. "Angel was put on life support and Bei Bei was counseled that the baby could not live without the machines. Angel died on January 3, in her mother's arms."

Shuai later learned that the hospital workers she'd trusted had been speaking to homicide detectives and the coroner's office about her suicide attempt; shortly after Angel's death, she was charged with attempted murder and feticide. If convicted, she could serve up to 65 years in prison.

Shuai is not an anomaly. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 38 states have fetal homicide laws on the books; 23 apply at every stage of gestation, from fertilization to delivery. The remainder apply only after quickening - the point at which the fetus can be felt moving - or in the third trimester. What's more, the 2004 Unborn Victims of Violence Act, signed into law by George W. Bush, reinforces the separation between women and fetus, making a child in utero a legal victim if he or she is injured or killed during the commission of a federal crime. While these laws were promulgated to punish third parties who hurt expectant mothers, NAPW notes that, more often than not, they've been used to prosecute pregnant women. Similarly, anti-drug chemical endangerment laws have led to numerous convictions for delivering a controlled substance to a minor.

NAPW staff - three lawyers, two researchers, several interns and an office manager - quickly reel off a roster of cases ranging from the surreal to the unbelievable.

There's Christine Taylor, a pregnant mother of two, who went to an Iowa emergency room after falling down a flight of stairs in her home. During the course of the examination, she spoke with the nurse and confided that she had not initially wanted another baby since she was separated from her husband and was already extremely stressed out. She also told the nurse that she'd debated abortion and adoption, but had ultimately concluded that she would carry to term and raise the child herself. After listening to Taylor's account, the nurse went to law enforcement authorities, telling them that she believed Taylor had intentionally tried to end her pregnancy. Taylor's confidential medical records ended up in the hands of the police, and she spent two days in jail before the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Then there are the 60 Alabama women - almost all of them low income - who have been arrested under the state's Chemical Endangerment Act of 2006. According to activists, the law was passed to deter people from bringing children into meth labs, but they report that it has been used against pregnant women who test positive for drugs. "The vast majority of these women have given birth to healthy babies," Ketteringham says. But apparently, that's beside the point.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services (SAMHSA), [www.SAMHSA.gov] slightly more than five percent of pregnant women use illegal drugs - the figure rises to 12.8 percent for those ages 15-17 and declines with age. Eleven percent drink, and 16.4 percent use tobacco. While SAMHSA's web site makes clear that all of these substances are counter-indicated during pregnancy, it highlights the fact that cigarettes can be as damaging to a developing fetus as illegal drugs, increasing the risk of miscarriage, separation of the placenta from the uterine wall before delivery and low-birth-weight babies.

So, here's the question: Should pregnant women who use these products be locked up until they deliver and monitored to ensure that they abstain? What about those who refuse to wear seat belts? How about women who defy doctor's orders and don't stay in bed, or continue to have sex after being told not to?

Stop snickering and rolling your eyes - it's not as preposterous as it sounds.

Meet KP, a Maryland woman arrested for shoplifting when she was seven months pregnant. After she tested positive for cocaine, KP was sent to a state detention facility for two months. The rationale? It was in the state's interest to make sure she remained clean in order to "protect the health of her fetus."

Hundreds of similar examples - NAPW concedes that as a small, underfunded group, they have no idea how many cases have actually been brought nationwide - have led to a dossier of anecdotes. There's the New Jersey woman who refused to pre-authorize a Caesarian section only to be charged with "reckless endangerment of fetal life" as a result of the refusal. And there's Jennie Linn McCormack, an Idaho woman who used to Internet to order RU-486, an FDA-approved abortifacient, and was subsequently arrested under an archaic state statute barring "self abortion."

As they reel off case after case, Paltrow, Ketteringham and others at NAPW strenuously contend that using criminal prosecution to deal with drug addiction, mental illness or violations of law or policy is both ineffective and inhumane. While they're not underestimating the toll of drug abuse, they assert that the money expended on prosecuting users would be better spent on improving rehab facilities so they can accommodate mothers who want to keep their children with them. More than 100 groups - from the March of Dimes to the American Medical Association and the Drug Policy Alliance - agree, and have signed onto amicus briefs in support of arrested or incarcerated women.

Several anti-abortion groups are also on board. "A lot of people who call themselves pro-life are really pro-lives," Paltrow says. "They've grown up in a community or culture that genuinely values pre-born lives, and they'd love to see an end to abortion. At the same time, they value the lives of pregnant women and do not want to see them go to jail because they've given birth."

A small, two-year-old anti-choice group called All Our Lives [www.allourlives.org] is leading the pack in denouncing feticide and chemical dependency laws. As they see it, if a woman - whether drug addicted, mentally ill or simply poor - opts to carry a pregnancy to term, she should be assisted, not condemned or arrested. Women will abort if they know they'll be charged when they deliver, All Our Lives concludes. "This criminalization is being pushed in the name of establishing rights of unborn children. Punishing children and pushing up the abortion rate doesn't accomplish this," their web site states.

NAPW wholeheartedly agrees. "Eighty four percent of women will become pregnant and will have given birth by the time they're in their 40s," says Paltrow. "Sixty-one percent of those having abortions are already mothers. They don't articulate it as, 'my body, my choice.' When they talk about their abortions, they talk about values, responsibility, and taking good care of themselves and their families."

These facts, Paltrow continues, suggest a way to reach people who have never before taken a stand on reproductive rights. "If pro-choice advocates acknowledge that the vast majority of women who have abortions are the same women who have babies, they have the opportunity to reframe the debate," she wrote in a 2011 issue of New York University's Review of Law and Social Change. "They will find many more potential allies to work with to ensure not only the right to choose abortion, but also to advocate for the social and economic conditions necessary to enable pregnant women to make real choices."

After all, she concludes, "If you support a culture of life, don't you have to support the women who bring that life into the world?"

June 7, 2012

Indiana's Gift to Mothers: Murder Charges for Miscarriages

Within days of Mothers Day, the Indiana Supreme Court denied Bei Bei Shuai’s motion for transfer. In so doing, they upheld the ruling of a mid-level appellate court, which says that feticide and fetal murder laws, intended to punish people who hurt pregnant women and cause them to miscarry, may be used against a pregnant woman herself. In a staggering disregard for medical expertise, the Indiana Supreme Court ignored five amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs from over 80 organizations, ruling instead that suicide should be a public health issue for everyone else, but a criminal matter for pregnant women.

This case is not just about one woman. Legal cases set precedent for everyone. Most obviously this case sets terrible precedent for pregnant women who have mental health problems. This means that a woman can be arrested and tried for attempted feticide or murder if she cannot put her depression on hold until after she gives birth. Unfortunately, pregnant women do not have any more control over their experiences of depression and suicidal ideation than do other people.

Now, in Indiana pregnant women have been singled out for punishment. But let me be absolutely clear about what this means for women who do things that might expose their fertilized eggs, embryos or fetuses to risk, who experience pregnancy loss, or who try to terminate a pregnancy.

People wrongly believe that our criminal laws require the state to prove that a person, in their heart, intended to cause the outcome: pregnancy risk or loss. But in Indiana, law only requires that you intended to do the act (attempt suicide) or knowingly did the act (knew that she was attempting suicide while pregnant).

This means that any time a woman, knowing she is pregnant, does or fails to do something (like refusing cesarean surgery or failing to follow a doctor’s recommendation for bed rest) she could be charged with a crime. This means that any miscarriage that occurs under “suspicious circumstances”—including pregnancy losses whether met with a sigh of relief by women unprepared for a pregnancy or extraordinary pain for the loss of a deeply wanted child—can become a criminal investigation and conviction with a potential life sentence (45 years). And it unquestionably means that a pregnant woman who lives in a place where abortion is inaccessible and tries to take control of her life by terminating her own pregnancy can be tried for murder.

I am pleased to report that this week, after a year of incarceration, Ms. Shuai was finally released from incarceration in a Marion County jail cell. She is far from free, however. Her release from required raising and posting a $5,000 bond—half of which will never be returned. She must also wear an electronic monitor which tracks her movements at all times, and which she must pay for herself at a cost of $12 per day. She is not free of the serious criminal charges, or the upcoming ordeal of a murder trial in which every aspect of the most unimaginably painful time in her life will be recounted in open court and twisted to cast her as a cold-blooded baby killer.

Unimaginable pain is a gross understatement for the layer upon layer of tragedy that Bei Bei Shuai has endured. Like the dozens of pregnant women who attempt suicide each year, Bei Bei Shuai never intended to survive her suicide attempt. The anguish she must have felt to try to end her own life was rivaled only by that of realizing that her attempt has failed and she must continue to live. And then to have her one hope for the future, her baby daughter Angel, snatched away from her is a grief so huge it could destroy even the most mentally healthy person. To now drag her through a trial for murder is an unspeakable cruelty. Angel is gone, and nobody in the world feels that more intimately than her mother, who underwent cesarean surgery to give her life and held her in her arms as she passed away. Justice demands that the state drop the charges against Ms. Shuai. Nothing will be gained by this case except the destruction of the life of a woman who has already survived the impossible and a judicially-created law that will treat women who have suffered pregnancy losses as no different from vicious murderers.

But beyond the impact that this will have on one woman’s life is the implication that it has for any woman of childbearing age. At a recent protest against the War on Women, I saw a sign that said “We won’t go back to the back alley.” Indiana’s message to us is that even if we manage to survive the back alley, we have the prison cell to look forward to.

You can make a difference: Sign the petition demanding that charges against Ms. Shuai be dropped.

June 6, 2012

Ms. Bei Bei Shuai Out of Jail but Far From Free

We are very happy to report that, with NAPW's help, Ms. Shuai is finally out of the jail cell that she was held in for over a year. Make no mistake, however, Ms. Shuai is far from free.

We are very happy to report that, with NAPW's help, Ms. Shuai is finally out of the jail cell that she was held in for over a year. Make no mistake, however, Ms. Shuai is far from free. In order to be released from the Marion County jail Ms. Shuai had to raise and post a $5,000 bond -- half of which will never be returned. Ms. Shuai must also wear an electronic monitor. The daily price of her freedom is $12 per day for the cost of the monitor. Ms. Shuai is not free of the charges against her, the trauma of being incarcerated for having attempted suicide while pregnant, nor is she free of the burden of being a prisoner of the war on women.

Ms. Shuai now faces a trial for attempted feticide and the murder of a viable fetus. She, NAPW, and the Indiana lawyers at Pence, Hensel LLC who will be representing her at trial must find a way to fund a trial that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Listen to this RH Reality Check sponsored briefing about the case featuring Emma Ketteringham, NAPW's Director of Legal Advocacy and Lynn Paltrow, NAPW's Executive Director. Hear from Christine Taylor, a woman who fell down a flight of stairs while pregnant and who was arrested under a feticide law similar to the one being used against Ms. Shuai. Listen to Ms. Shuai herself as she speaks out in this new article in the Guardian that reflects NAPW's public education efforts.

More than 5,000 people from across the US and the globe have signed the Free Bei Bei Shuai change.org petition. Justice demands that the State of Indiana put an end to this misuse of the law and abuse of Ms. Shuai and drop the charges that should never have been filed in the first place. Please keep the pressure on. Spread the word about the petition, write, blog, send Ms. Shuai a letter of support via NAPW. Post something wonderful on Personhood for the Already Born, a site created by a former NAPW intern.

NAPW needs your activism and your ongoing financial support. We need your support now more than ever as we work with attorneys in Indiana to mount a defense for Ms. Shuai (a wildly expensive endeavor), continue our work in Alabama, Mississippi, and Idaho, and press forward with challenges to a growing number of civil and criminal cases which threaten to pass "personhood" measures in disguise. Despite NAPW's numerous victories over more than a decade, the number of cases like the Shuai case and the number of requests for NAPW's help are greater than ever. We hope you will be part of NAPW's fight for justice.