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Ind. Case Raises Questions About Criminal Charges Against Pregnant Women

Ind. Case Raises Questions About Criminal Charges Against Pregnant Women

March 11, 2013 — Prosecutors in a case against an Indiana woman who attempted suicide while pregnant have asked that the judge ban defense attorneys from asking certain questions and bar courtroom spectators from wearing buttons with opinions about the case -- a move that critics say could limit jurors' sympathy for the woman, USA Today reports (USA Today, 3/8).

Indiana resident Bei Bei Shuai attempted to kill herself in December 2010, when she was 33 weeks pregnant, by consuming rat poison. Shuai was hospitalized, and the infant was delivered via caesarean section but died a few days later. In March 2011, Shuai was charged with murder and attempted feticide under an Indiana law that makes it a crime to cause death or injury to a fetus.

Although a state court in May 2012 granted her $50,000 bond, courts have declined to overturn the charges. In July 2012, Shuai rejected a plea deal that would have negated the murder charge (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/17/12).

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In what some observers called standard procedure, prosecutors requested that Judge Sheila Carlisle prevent defense lawyers from questioning witnesses about their religious beliefs or asking other questions that could cause the jurors to feel sympathy for Shuai.

Women's rights advocates criticized the request. Shuai's attorney, Linda Pence, said, "You can't ask a court or ask a lawyer to word their questions to avoid sympathy. That's something the jury determines, not the lawyers."

Lynn Paltrow -- executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which is helping to defend Shuai -- said the motion "is an admission by the prosecutor that the case is recognized by a growing number of people in Indiana who recognize he is setting up a separate and unequal system of treatment that is going to affect all pregnant women."

Brooke Beloso, an assistant professor at Butler University, has collected 11,000 signatures on a petition to have the charges against Shuai dropped. Beloso said, "This case aims to set a precedent that reduces pregnant women to walking wombs under total state control and surveillance at all times, subject to getting thrown in jail if for whatever reason we can't or don't obey.