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August 20, 2013

Guest Post: Buckhalter Conviction Would Hurt Women

As originally published in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger on June 21, 2013.

Mississippi doesn’t need help catching bad press. Perhaps this explains why many of us who live here hesitate to speak publicly on issues we find troubling.

After all, contrary to conventional (non-local) wisdom, and surpassing understanding of my mostly east-coast relatives, living in Mississippi has a lot to offer. It has a small-scale, family-friendly way of life, natural beauty, and three seasons of pleasant weather. Amidst its famously “failing” public schools one finds hidden gems, such as the wonderful and highly rated Davis Magnet International Baccalaureate World School in Jackson.

Mississippians take religion and religious leaders seriously, a plus for me (I’m a rabbi). And in Mississippi you can find some of the most purpose-driven people you’d ever wish to meet, working to make it a place worthy of its Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and world-class musicians, a place that transcends the well-known low points of its history.

So it is with sadness and some trepidation that I feel compelled to report that as a woman, a mother of daughters and a religious leader living in Mississippi, I am very worried.

The Mississippi Supreme Court recently heard the case against Nina Buckhalter, a young woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby girl, Hayley Jade, in 2009. Two months later, citing her methamphetamine problem, a grand jury indicted Buckhalter for manslaughter in Hayley Jade’s death. Now we await the supreme court’s decision.

I am worried about what a ruling against Buckhalter would do to the health and safety of pregnant women in a state where “personhood” for fetuses was on the ballot two years ago and will, despite a resounding defeat, soon make a comeback if its supporters have their way; in a state where the sole remaining abortion clinic already struggles against hostile legislative measures to remain open. I am worried for all the potentially pregnant women in Mississippi, including most of my close friends, myself, and one day in the increasingly near future, my daughters.

But as a faith leader, I’m also gravely concerned that here—in a state where Biblical quotes appear prominently at public school football games, on lawn service vans, and many places in between—the Bible has been hijacked. I fear and regret the way in which appropriately passionate and Biblically inspired respect for the sanctity of life fuels the legal fight to establish and protect the rights of fetuses at the expense of the rights, and lives, of women.

“Choose life,” we read in Deuteronomy 30, “that you may live.” But how? What does it mean to choose life? And whose life are we talking about? The Bible never addresses the question of when life begins, although Jewish tradition does ascribe a soul, and even a special guardian angel, to a fetus in utero. The Bible does comment on the legal damages owed by one who injures a pregnant woman and causes her to miscarry. In Exodus 21, the guilty party is held accountable not for loss of life but for loss of property: “If men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined…. But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye…” (Ex. 21:22-4, emphasis added). We may argue over the meaning of “no harm follow,” but the verse indisputably suggests that fetal death alone is not punishable in the same category as bodily harm.

Many things have changed since Biblical times, but some of the mysteries surrounding pregnancy and birth have not. We still do not know why some pregnancies miscarry or end in stillbirth, while others yield healthy infants, and still others produce infants with disabilities of endless variety and severity. We do know some of the contributing factors to these outcomes, but since the list includes, among others, not only the mother’s age, race, and socioeconomic status but also the father’s smoking habits, pinpointing an exact cause remains in most cases, impossible.

No one of faith or good will could suggest that a fetus has no value, much less that it is safe or responsible for a pregnant woman to take illegal drugs. But let us not use a faulty reading of the Bible as a club against a woman who needs help, not prosecution.

Here’s some Mississippi news I’m happy to promote: Nina Buckhalter has, since the stillbirth, received treatment for her drug abuse problem, graduated with honors from Hinds Community College, and given birth to a healthy child. Furthermore, pregnant women are still today sovereign people, even in Mississippi, and pregnancy is neither a prison nor probation. Here’s hoping we can keep it that way.


Rabbi Debra Kassoff lives in Jackson, Mississippi, with her husband and their two daughters. She serves congregations in Greenville, Mississippi, and in Fort Collins, Colorado.

August 6, 2013

Thank You! Bei Bei Shuai is Free and More!

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After two and a half years, Bei Bei Shuai - an Indiana woman who was charged with feticide and murder for attempting suicide while pregnant - is finally free: free from a looming murder trial, free from the electronic GPS shackle that has tracked her every move since her release on bail from the Marion County Jail, and free from an unjust and legally unauthorized prosecution.

With your help, NAPW has played a significant role in the case through legal advocacy, public education, and ongoing collaborative grassroots and national organizing.

Faced with enormous public pressure - including a flood of­ more than 100,000 emails through Change.org from people in Indiana and around the world demanding that all charges be dropped, student-led protests outside the Marion County Jail and in the prosecutor's office, a major demonstration in downtown Indianapolis, educational forums including one on mental illness, pregnancy, and public health, and critical media coverage and op-eds - the prosecutor offered Ms. Shuai a plea agreement. This agreement would drop the feticide and murder charges and allow her to avoid a lengthy trial that was expected to attract widespread media attention.

On Friday evening, Ms. Shuai pled guilty to the Class B misdemeanor of "criminal recklessness." She was immediately freed. The official sentence of 178 days in jail was already far exceeded by the year she spent incarcerated without bail plus the more than 365 days on bail during which there were severe limitations on her freedom including constant state surveillance and supervision. Although the State of Indiana should never have put Ms. Shuai in the position of having to plead guilty to any crime, we are thrilled that, with your support, she is now free to move on with her life. This plea does not set legal precedent for future prosecutions, and we hope the massive public opposition to this prosecution will act as a political deterrent to new efforts to misuse Indiana's laws to police and punish pregnant women.

We commend the excellent work of Ms. Shuai's trial attorneys - led by Linda Pence and the team at Pence Hensel, and Kate Jack, former Staff Attorney at NAPW - who have stood by Ms. Shuai from the very beginning. We honor the more than 80 medical, public health, and advocacy organizations and experts who appeared as amici (friends of the court) calling for dismissal of the charges. We salute the local Indiana activists - including Butler University students and professor Dr. Brooke Beloso, the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice and members of Law Students for Reproductive Justice - who have tirelessly advocated for justice for Ms. Shuai and all Indiana women. But most of all we stand in awe of the courage and resilience Ms. Shuai has shown as the state of Indiana has pursued this cruel and wrongful prosecution.

Unfortunately Ms. Shuai is not the only woman in the United States who has been subjected to wrongful prosecution in relation to her pregnancy. In spite of Ohio Supreme Court case law established in 1992 that rejected the use of criminal child endangerment laws to punish drug-using women for giving birth, Ms. Astasia Clemons was arrested and charged with the crime of "Corrupting Another with Drugs" after giving birth to a healthy baby who tested positive for controlled substances. She was sentenced to two years in prison. The "Corrupting" law was passed to punish people who furnish drugs to others or force them to become addicted. The prosecutor nevertheless argued that Ms. Clemons, "by force, threat, or deception" caused her unborn daughter to use a controlled substance, likening the same processes by which a pregnant woman nurtures and sustains her baby to an act of force. As a result of NAPW's diligent case tracking methods, we learned about the prosecution and reached out to her public defender. Working with the Ohio State University Mortiz School of Law Civil Litigation Clinic, we filed an amicus brief on behalf of over two-dozen experts and organizations to inform the court that treating women as though they are "corrupting" their children by giving birth to them is not only absurd but also dangerous as a matter of public health.

After deliberating for over a year (but within only a few months of our joining the case), the court ruled in Ms. Clemons's favor, refusing to create absurd results and overturning her two-year prison sentence. NAPW is working with local public defenders to use this ruling to help free at least six other Ohio women who are serving prison terms or who are on probation on the same wrongful charges.

These cases represent just a few of the consequences of legal precedent that would treat fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as if they are persons entirely separate from pregnant women and, as a result, permit an extremely punitive and unequal system of law for pregnant women.

Thank you for your help in challenging such efforts and for your support in making these victories possible.