In December of 2010, a Chinese immigrant named Bei Bei Shuai had her heart broken. A pregnant divorcée, Shuai was in love with the father of her unborn child, who had also claimed to be divorced. He was not divorced, however, and had no intention of leaving his wife and two kids. Instead, he broke off his affair with Shuai. According to Shuai, her ex-lover left her in a parking lot, sobbing on her knees. In the next moment, she claims to have looked up and spotted a hardware store. She went in, purchased rat poison, rushed home and ate it. When the poison did not kill her, she reached out to friends, who helped her get medical assistance. Bei Bei survived her suicide attempt. Unfortunately, she went into labor, and her child died two days later.
Now, Bei Bei Shuai has been charged with the murder and feticide of her child.
Shuai is being charged under the Indiana feticide statute, a law that was created to cover acts of violence perpetrated by third parties. For example, if an attacker beat a pregnant woman and the attack resulted in the death of the fetus, the attacker would be charged with feticide. A drunk driver who collided with a pregnant driver, causing her to miscarry, would also be charged with feticide. According to an article on NBC.com, This is the first case in Indiana history in which the feticide statute was used to charge the pregnant woman herself. It is not the first case of this nature in the country, though–there have been many other cases in which women were charged with murder after having a miscarriage as the result of drug abuse, with the trials occuring mostly in Alabama and Mississippi. The fact that Shuai had attempted suicide, though, makes this case unique.
The results of this case could impact the rights of pregnant women all over the country. As Butler University assistant professor Brooke Beloso has warned, “this case aims to set a precedent that reduces pregnant women to walking wombs under total state control and surveillance.” Women could be arrested for smoking or drinking while pregnant. While these activities are known to be unhealthy for a fetus, it must be a woman’s right to choose whether or not to engage in healthy behaviors, especially when those behaviors are otherwise legal for an adult to engage in. Where would one draw the line? Even riding a horse or a bicycle can endanger a pregnancy. If a woman’s workplace contains harmful substances, will she be prosecuted if she doesn’t quit? If a woman becomes ill and must take medication or have chemotherapy, will treatment be refused? If a woman slips and falls, will she be asked to prove it was an accident? A miscarriage, already a traumatic event to experience, could bring with it a criminal investigation.
The other issue is that Shuai was suffering from depression at the time of the attempted suicide. This adds another problematic impact that could be had on society. If Shuai was suffering from depression, it means she was not in the right state of mind to make responsible decisions regarding her own well-being, let alone her unborn fetus. Will the justice system expect pregnant women to be able to suddenly and completely overcome mental illness, when people who are not pregnant fail to do so everyday? This is an especially unrealistic expectation considering the existence of prenatal depression, a condition which is just as common as postpartum depression but is much less discussed. According to an article on HuffingtonPost.com, one study reported at least 13% of pregnant women suffered from symptoms of clinical depression at 32 weeks. That’s just about exactly where Bei Bei Shuai was in her pregnancy. Substance abuse is also a mental health issue. Is a pregnant woman expected to suddenly develop a superhuman ability to quit a serious addiction, simply because she was knocked up?
This case reminds me of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian woman who died in an Irish hospital in November of 2012. Halappanavar, who was 17 weeks pregnant, was admitted to the University of Galway Hospital in Ireland for severe back pain. Savita was miscarrying and begged for her pregnancy to be terminated–the only option available to treat her condition. The hospital staff refused to treat her until her unborn child’s heartbeat stopped because of the strict abortion laws in place in Ireland, a largely Catholic country, and Halappanavar remained in agony for several days. By the time the fetal heartbeat stopped and Halappanavar’s pregnancy was terminated, it was too late. Savita Halappanavar, a 31 year old dentist, died of septicemia (blood poisoning) and major organ failure caused by the miscarriage.
Savita’s case sounds shocking, but consider that that the ‘Let Women Die’ Act, or H.R. 538, of 2011 passed the House and was almost made into law. The bill aimed to make what happened to Savita legal in hospitals in the USA, allowing institutions to deny life-saving abortions to miscarrying women.
In both cases, the women were/are held to be less important than the fetuses they were carrying. Their well-being, their choices, their very lives are an afterthought. Instead, they were treated as “walking wombs”. This issue is parallel with the issue of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. If a woman can be charged with murder for eating rat poison, wouldn’t that mean abortion is also murder? Would Shuai still be charged with feticide if she had only been in her first or second trimester, when abortion is legal and easier to access, as opposed to a third trimester abortion, which is restricted in many states? On the other hand, many states allow third trimester abortions. Would Bei Bei Shuai be free today if she had lived in Colorado and went to the Boulder Abortion Clinic, where third trimester abortions are legally performed without restrictions?
What it really comes down to is that not only are pregnant women seen as baby vehicles, but they are also expected to be superhuman. The fact is, pregnant women are still women, and that means they’re human. We are not just ‘Walking Wombs’!
Bei Bei Shuai’s trial will start in April 2013. A Change.com petition started by Brooke Beloso has over 11,000 signatures. You can sign it here.
And here are ‘10 Tips To Stay Out of Jail When You’re Pregnant‘, a horrifying (and funny) condensed list of all the ways a women could be prosecuted while pregnant.