As conservatives attempt to criminalize a broader range of actions in attempts to grant legal personhood to unborn children, and thus create a stronger argument against safe, legal abortion, a case in Mississippi is at center stage.
Prosecutors there charged a 16 year old unwed mother with the crime of “depraved heart murder” because she allegedly ingested cocaine at some point in her pregnancy. The child was stillborn. The sentence that hung over the 16 year old mother was life in prison.
“Depraved heart murder” is a unique crime that requires murder committed with a “callous disregard for human life.” The mother allegedly used coke at some point in her life. Prosecutors never proved exactly when, or how much, of the drug was used. There was no proof that coke had anything to do with the child being stillborn– experts who examined the medical records concluded the child’s cause of death was the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. The state’s medical examiner came to a different conclusion after tests turned up traces of a cocaine byproduct in the baby’s blood, and declared her death a homicide, caused by “cocaine toxicity.” There was presented no scientific proof that cocaine can cause lasting damage to a child exposed in the womb. No cocaine traces were found, simply a by product that could have been introduced by coke usage.
The judge unfortunately only dismissed the charges on a legal technicality, and so prosecutors plan to try the case again with slightly different charges. And why not? The taxpayers of Mississippi have funded this pseudo-legal conservative push to establish “personhood” for fetuses as part of a broad-based strategy to weaken abortion laws for seven years. The mother was charged in 2006, and the case took until now just to reach what some might call a mid-point.
Sadly, the case in Mississippi is not unique. A National Advocates for Pregnant Women study identified hundreds of criminal and civil cases involving the arrest and detention of pregnant women since the decision in Roe v. Wade was issued in 1973. State authorities have used post-Roe measures including feticide laws and anti-abortion laws recognizing separate rights for fertilized, eggs, embryos and fetuses as the basis for depriving pregnant women – whether they were seeking to end a pregnancy or go to term – of their liberty.
This case also brings up equally serious issues. African Americans, who suffer twice as many stillbirths as whites (the Centers for Disease Control report that infant mortality rates in Mississippi were 7.07 percent for white children but 13.82 percent for black children), could once again in Mississippi find themselves disportionately prosecuted.
In the larger picture, even as Mississippi spends taxpayer money on prosecutions such as this, the state has one of has one of the worst records for maternal and infant health in the U.S., as well as some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Factors that have been proven to cause stillborns and infant deaths, such as poverty, poor nutrition, and lack of access to healthcare, remain unchecked in favor of legal actions against teen mothers. Indeed, Mississippi has both the highest poverty rate, and the highest infant mortality rate, in the United States. The state also has the highest premature birth rate in America.
It’s almost as if Mississippi cares more about the politics of unborn children, than unborn children.
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