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Woman Charged with Murder for Attempting Suicide while Pregnant

By April 24, 2011

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In Indianapolis, Indiana, a Chinese immigrant who attempted suicide is being charged with murder because the attempt affected her fetus, leading to the death of the infant four days after it was born. The implications for this case cannot be underestimated because it could radically undermine the autonomy of women while pregnant.

"If we allowed the state to put a woman in jail for anything that could pose a risk to her pregnancy, there would be nothing to stop the police putting in jail a woman who has a drink of wine or who smokes. So where do you draw the line?"

[Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union] said there had been an alarming rise in the number of such cases across the US. Some women's groups put the rise down to pressure on prosecutors from anti-abortion groups. ...

Kathrine Jack, a lawyer with the NAPW, who meets Shuai about once a week, said that after the initial suicide attempt, she had regained hope. "She has been on a rollercoaster," said the lawyer, who argued that women such as Shuai should, rather than being locked up, receive medical and psychiatric help.

Jack, who has been involved in dozens of similar cases where women were charged as a result of incidents while pregnant, said: "Prosecutions like this are increasing in the US and are a result of anti-abortion rhetoric and movements that seek to give the foetus rights above and beyond those of women.

"If it was allowed to stand, it would not outlaw abortion right away but it would be a significant step along the way."

Source: Guardian

The significance of this case would be difficult to underestimate. Although it doesn't deal directly with abortion, the implications for the abortion debates are clear: just how much autonomy does a woman have over her own body and how much authority does the state have to restrict a woman's decisions about her body? At what point does the state have the authority to instruct women what they may and may not do with own bodies?

Under other circumstances, if I take actions which cause a person to suffer -- even if they don't die -- I can be held responsible and even charged with crimes. Normally, though, that can only happen if I take actions that extend beyond my own body. There aren't any good analogies where a person does something to their own bodies and then a second person suffers at some later date.

There's no question but that this is a tragic case and also that there are difficult issues involved. At the end of the day, though, the fact remains that it would be very dangerous to decide that certain people have less autonomy over their bodies than others, or even that no one has real bodily autonomy. We don't want the state to have that kind of power over our bodies and our organs, do we?

April 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm
(1) Jockaira says:

Case law (precedent) in the U.S. is quite clear that human personhood begins at the moment of first respiration after the fetus is removed from the womb. This is also in accordance with the ancient law of the Talmud. By strict application of this principle, that which occurs before the first moment of human personhood is entirely the concern of the mother only and those she choses to be involved.

The extension of the law and the power of nosy prosecutors into a women’s body is dangerous to the maintenance of Constitutional Human Rights and an offense to common human dignity.

On the other hand, a pregnant mother who is assaulted and loses her fetus or loses a live-born infant who succumbs to injuries from the attack, has every right to press criminal charges against her assailant and recover damages in civil court for pain and suffering caused by the loss of the expected child.

At this point, I would leave open the question of prosecution of the assailant for assault or murder against a live-born and then dead infant unless it could be shown that the assailant planned such or could reasonably expect such.

The obvious intent of the woman above was suicide and because of her pregnancy, the death of the fetus is a reasonable forgone conclusion. Surely she intended no harm to the fetus, but only a necessary death because of her own. By law, ancient and present, it can be seen that she has committed no crime except for the secular violation of attempted suicide; the life of the fetus was hers to decide. She reasonably could not have foreseen that her suicidal actions would cause the fetus to be born legally alive, therefore there was no criminal intent or criminal culpability.

In all this, the over-riding consideration should be the rights of the women to quiet enjoyment of her life and respect for ALL her rights, not just those abstemiously granted by patriarchal dogmatists.

April 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm
(2) Rayanne says:

Very well put.

April 25, 2011 at 9:46 pm
(3) Ron says:

Jockaira How do you think your informative post would apply to the fetus in the Scott Peterson case?///// Scott Lee Peterson (born October 24, 1972) was convicted of the murder of his wife, Laci Peterson, and THEIR UNBORN CHILD in Modesto, California

April 29, 2011 at 4:45 pm
(4) Borsia says:

The intent to kill herself is obvious, although making it a crime it rather silly. But her intent toward the fetus is questionable. We simply don’t know how much the pregnancy weighted into her decision. The article doesn’t say at what term she was at at the time of the attempt.

Regardless; nothing is gained by prosecuting her. It is a complete waste of both time and money.
She needs help and should get it but prison isn’t the place and she would get very little help there. Not to mention destroying and chance of a more normal life in the future.

April 29, 2011 at 11:16 pm
(5) OZAtheist says:

This is a very disturbing story and a good illustration of the perils involved when religious directions are used to determine what is or is not a crime. The woman involved clearly needs help not punishment.
How the legal authorities can be so bereft of compassion that they seek to persecute this poor woman is beyond my understanding.

February 14, 2013 at 2:17 am
(6) Jockaira says:

Answering Ron #3:

Scott Peterson was convicted of 1st degree murder of Laci Peterson and of 2nd degree murder of HER FETUS (not “THEIR UNBORN CHILD”). The 2nd degree conviction was probably due to no legal proof that Scott’s primary intent was to harm the fetus, but only to murder Laci and incidentally murder the fetus. (I am using the word “murder” here in its exact social and legal meaning, i.e., the socially or legally proscribed or prohibited act of homicide (the killing of a human)).

I refer you to paragraphs #3 and #4 in my comment above that are in accord with California law which does stipulate that a pregnant woman can file criminal and/or civil charges against an assailant or other person who injures or kills her fetus. In this case, Laci was obviously not able to press charges, so per usual policy in murder cases in most jurisdictions, the state did it for her. It’s a fair assumption that the jury believed that Laci would have wanted the fetus to complete its full term and be born, as no evidence was presented at the trial of any discussion of an abortion. This law confers no rights upon the fetus, rights to recover for civil or criminal damages rests solely with the pregnant woman.

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