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Miss. Case Could Set Precedent for Criminalizing Miscarriages, Stillbirths

Miss. Case Could Set Precedent for Criminalizing Miscarriages, Stillbirths

May 28, 2013 — A case being considered by the Mississippi Supreme Court could result in women in the state being charged with manslaughter if they experience a miscarriage or other unintentional pregnancy loss, Salon reports (McDonough, Salon, 5/23).

In 2009, Mississippi resident Nina Buckhalter gave birth to a stillborn infant at 31 weeks of pregnancy. She later was charged with manslaughter for allegedly causing the stillbirth through "culpable negligence" by taking methamphetamines while pregnant.

The charges were brought under two Mississippi laws -- one that defines manslaughter as the "killing of a human being, by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another" and a second that includes "an unborn child at every stage of gestation from conception until live birth" in the state's definition of human being.

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case last month. Buckhalter's attorneys argued that allowing the charges to stand would allow law enforcement to prosecute women who experience an unintentional pregnancy loss for many potentially harmful activities, such as smoking, alcohol use, exercising against a physician's orders or failing to follow obesity- or hypertension-related medical advice.

Farah Diaz-Tello, an attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who is representing Buckhalter, said the court could set a "dangerous precedent" that any miscarriages or stillbirths "can be treated as a form of homicide" (Sheppard, Mother Jones, 5/23).

Buckhalter's lawyers and reproductive health advocates in the state have also argued that the charges might discourage pregnant women with substance abuse problems from seeking help during pregnancy (Salon, 5/23). The attorneys said fear of prosecution could lead women to "seek an abortion that she might not have otherwise sought," since abortion is specifically exempted from the state's homicide law.

Several public health and medical groups -- including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Medical Association and American Academy of Pediatrics -- have backed up that argument in a friend-of-the-court brief.

A ruling in the case is expected soon, according to Mother Jones (Mother Jones, 5/23).