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.