Spontaneous Abortion as Murder


Sometimes the news from overseas about the U.S. makes for more worthwhile reading than the news we get here. A case in point comes from the UK where the Guardian reported on misuse of drug laws to prosecute mothers who lost their babies through spontaneous abortions.

They cite several examples of laws used to convict based on drug abuse during a pregnancy, even if the subsequent loss of the fetus wasn’t directly tied to drug. A couple instances should show how this works:

A woman in Mississippi was charged with murder under the “depraved heart” law when doctors found out she was addicted to cocaine when her baby was stillborn at 36 weeks (nearly full term). In Alabama, a woman was charged with chemical endangerment of a child when her newborn died shortly after birth. She faces 10 months in prison if convicted – she is alleged to have taken drugs during the pregnancy.

According to the Guardian article, 38 out of 50 States have laws that make the death of an unborn child a homicide. While originally enacted to address violence against pregnant women, these same laws can be used to prosecute mothers – even when a voluntary abortion would have been legal.

There is a well tested provision in law generally that holds the consequences of an illegal act (taking drugs) can be charged against the offender with little regard for intent. Because the effects of taking drugs and alcohol during pregnancy is a well documented cause of spontaneous abortion, this then becomes a homicide in states where fetal death is chargeable. Right now, it depends on each prosecutor whether or not a particular woman will be arrested or tried.

Women’s rights groups are involved in trying to get the laws overturned, but for now, each case is evaluated on an individual basis. Related to this is whether or not a woman has the right to chemically induce an abortion without medical supervision or outside the time limits set by law. A recent case out of Idaho addresses this issue.


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