May 22, 2012 — An ongoing case involving a pregnant woman who attempted suicide is drawing attention to state and federal laws that make it a crime to cause death or injury to a fetus, NPR's "Shots" reports.
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. Last week, a state court granted her $50,000 bond, though courts have declined to overturn the charges.
At least 36 states and the federal government have enacted similar laws. Emma Ketteringham, one of Shuai's attorneys, said, "These laws were passed by the legislature to protect women from third-party violence, not to be used against women themselves." However, the court's ruling against Shuai "made it quite clear that pregnant women are no different than third parties when it comes to their pregnancies."
Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women said, "The principle seems established for now that if you do something intended to end your pregnancy ... that is murder," adding, "A suicide attempt will be treated as a public health problem for everyone except pregnant women and for them it will be treated as a crime."
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a court brief on Shuai's behalf that "any pregnant woman could be prosecuted for doing (or attempting) anything that may put her health at risk, regardless of the outcome of the pregnancy," such as smoking, living with a smoker, working long hours while standing, being overweight, not exercising or not obtaining regular prenatal care (Rovner, NPR, "Shots," 5/18).