According to a report from Kate Shepherd at Mother Jones, Mississippi’s State Supreme Court is currently considering a case that could lead to women being prosecuted for manslaughter — if they experience unintentional pregnancy loss.
In 2009, Nina Buckhalter’s pregnancy ended in stillbirth after two months only to have a Mississippi grand jury indict her for manslaughter, citing her use of methamphetamine while pregnant as “culpable negligence.”
Reproductive health advocates across the country, as well as Buckhalter’s lawyers, contend that in addition to criminalizing countless women, the charges could deter women who are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction during pregnancy from seeking prenatal care or treatment for substance abuse for fear of being prosecuted, thus creating barriers to safe abortion care.
If prosecutors prevail in this case, the state would be setting a “dangerous precedent” that “unintentional pregnancy loss can be treated as a form of homicide,” says Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a nonprofit legal organization that has joined with Robert McDuff, a Mississippi civil rights lawyer, to defend Buckhalter. If Buckhalter’s case goes forward, NAPW fears it could spur a wave of similar prosecutions in Mississippi and other states.
Mississippi’s manslaughter laws were not intended to apply in cases of stillbirths and miscarriages. Four times between 1998 through 2002, Mississippi lawmakers rejected proposals that would have set specific penalties for damaging a fetus by using illegal drugs during pregnancy. But Mississippi prosecutors say that two other state laws allow them to charge Buckhalter. One defines of manslaughter as the “killing of a human being, by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another”; another includes “an unborn child at every stage of gestation from conception until live birth” in the state’s definition of human beings.
Shepherd goes on to say that it is difficult to determine the cause of any stillbirth or miscarriage, and that many experts believe that there is no conclusive evidence that exposure to drugs in utero can result in an unintentional pregnancy loss. This leaves the notion of prosecuting women in this manner fraught with complications, along with opening the door for prosecutorial abuse.