More women charged with murder after miscarriages

The Guardian reports:

Rennie Gibbs is accused of murder, but the crime she is alleged to have committed does not sound like an ordinary killing. Yet she faces life in prison in Mississippi over the death of her unborn child.

Gibbs became pregnant aged 15, but lost the baby in December 2006 in a stillbirth when she was 36 weeks into the pregnancy. When prosecutors discovered that she had a cocaine habit – though there is no evidence that drug abuse had anything to do with the baby’s death – they charged her with the “depraved-heart murder” of her child, which carries a mandatory life sentence.

And she’s not the only one. Yet more cases to discuss next time you teach Susan Bordo’s brilliant “Are mothers persons?” (Unbearable Weight)

I’m figuring the feminist worries about this are too obvious to spell out in this context, so I thought I’d note a less obvious one.

I have a friend who specialises, in the UK, in care for pregnant women with addiction problems. She has helped hundreds (actually, probably thousands by now) of women addicted women through their pregnancies and birth and thanks to the specialised care they provide they have all been healthy, as have their babies. But the specialised care is important. And she tells me that such care is simply not possible in the US, because addicted pregnant women who admit their addiction risk criminal charges. Even if all you care about is the babies, then, you should oppose this: the babies of addicted women are far less likely to be born healthy when their mothers can’t seek the care they need.

And, may I just add, HTF does “depraved-heart murder” get to be a legal category?!

(Thanks, M!)

15 thoughts on “More women charged with murder after miscarriages

  1. On the main topic I agree with you completely and have nothing to add. The rule and approach are too dumb and awful to accept.

    On this:
    may I just add, HTF does “depraved-heart murder” get to be a legal category?!
    This is a old and fairly traditional term for a wrongful killing that is more than merely reckless (and reckless is more than merely negligent) but that is not intentional. It implies that the person doing the killing did not necessarily intend to kill anyone- that wasn’t his or her goal or aim- but acted in such a way as to expose the person who was killed to such extreme danger that this indicates a wanton disregard to human life. I can see arguments in both directions for having more or fewer classifications for crimes, but there does seem to be normative space between intentional wrongful killing and merely reckless behavior that kills, and that’s where this category is supposed to fit. Clearly, the application to this sort of case is, at best, highly problematic.

  2. Thanks for this important post and the unfortunately crazy/unjust tragic details. Consciousness raising generally and especially among receptive groups of people who either might not know or might need to hear/read it more is arguably very important.

    I know of several large employers (corporate and state agencies) who take illegal drug use and their alleged effects very seriously, but that also do not negatively sanction (or seek/promote negative sanctions by others for) employees who are in appropriate treatment programs or forms of specialized care. It would certainly be nice (not to mention arguably required by ethics / justice) for criminal law and other powerfully influential institutions to follow similar policies, approaches, attitudes, interpretations, and sentiments…

    Perhaps it is no accident (or is it?) that the aforementioned large employers (corporate and state agencies) are not based in confederate or red states in the US.

  3. My friend tells me that your proposal wouldn’t do the trick, David. The reason is that most treatment programmes require an enrollee to quit “cold turkey”. This is incredibly dangerous for a pregnant woman to do. So treatment programmes would need to be drastically reformed as well– there would have to be special programmes for pregnant women, and perhaps for other groups. Then, though, it would be good.

  4. Thanks for the important info Jender. The employers that I know of do not require any sort of “cold turkey”. In fact, they require long term medical/health care and repeated follow ups (actually on a monthly and sometimes a weekly basis that usually lasts for at least a year if not much longer). I suspect it varies case by case. I am reluctant to provide further details for various reasons, though I hope that expressing and discussing these matters is a good thing. (One example I have in mind comes from a friend who works in the New York State Department of Correctional Services.) I certainly appreciate your point about special treatment programs and thank you for emphasizing it; the ignorance and/or insensitivity of many of my students about such important details continues to shock me each semester.

    (Self centered note: I literally have never consumed an illegal substance in my life. All my friends tell me that I am the only adult they know for whom this is true.)

  5. Of course, it’s barbaric, but why?

    What kind of people want to imprison women because they miscarry?

    What is in their minds?

    Those are real, not rhetorical questions.

    Yes, I know that they are guided by a fundamentalistic religious ideology, but what is behind it all?

  6. Matt gave a good description there. For anyone who’s interested, the long jurisprudence of depraved-heart murder in the common law is quite colorful, as jurists have searched for the words to describe the state of mind they’re getting at. There are some classic formulations: “an abandoned and malignant heart” (that’s my favorite), “utter callousness toward the value of human life”, and so forth. Basically, the reasoning is that this state of mind of extreme recklessness and indifference to innocent life is so reprehensible and antisocial that it may justly be treated as a stand-in for the intentionality normally required of (second-degree, usually) murder.

    The textbook case is someone pointing a gun into a crowded room and shooting blindly. As Matt alluded above, the shooter may not specifically have intended to harm anyone – he or she may even subjectively have hoped the bullet did NOT strike anyone – but intentionally doing something that is so obviously likely to take a life is said to betoken a “depraved heart”.

  7. (David Slutsky, I have also never had an illegal substance in my body! And I am also told regularly that I must be the only adult they know…etc. My husband is as illegal-drug free as myself. So there are a few of us.)

    s.wallerstein, I’ve thought your questions myself, many times. I really wish to know what’s in their minds.

    I’ve come to some conclusions, but most of them rely on understanding someone who really and truly believes that the universe is exactly as they’ve been taught, and is constituted by bad people who deserve hell and good people who deserve heaven. There seems to be a powerful compulsion among many humans to be seen as the Good people. It’s like an urge toward sharp clarity between Us and Them. I’ve never found the world so sharp and never felt an urge toward that kind of clarity, but certainly some must, because things like fascism and xenophobia really, really grab some minds powerfully. The love of babies as god’s little angels, and the hatred of mothers as corrupt and wicked sex-having bodies, sometimes seems to fit into this sort of love of oneself as good, and something like a love of finding bad people to hate.

  8. Profbigk,

    What you say makes sense to me. However, I wonder why they single out pregnant drug addicts who miscarry, who seem to me to be innocent victims of their own inner disorder and who probably feel miserable about their lives before miscarrying and worse after miscarrying.

    There are so many candidates in this world for eternal damnation: drug addicts who miscarry would not make my list. They need help.

    Is this type of mentality on the increase or has it come out of the closet in recent years?

    If it’s on the increase, does that mean some type of fascism is on the rise as a mass phenomenon?

  9. It’s not exactly obvious that this case has anything to do with religious ideology, hatred of mothers, fascism, etc.

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