Opinion

Women Who Miscarry Could Be Criminally Investigated Under Georgia's New Abortion Law

If you think that the idea of police investigating miscarriages seems outlandish, you may be surprised to learn it already happens.

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Erin Lux

Things are getting very ugly in Georgia for women.

The HB 481 law that was just passed in Georgia dictates that a fetus should be treated as a full person from the moment of conception and that they deserve “full legal recognition.”

That is very scary terminology. “Full legal recognition” means that the fetus is recognized as a "natural person" according to state law, and anyone who harms them could be punished as they would for any other crime against a person.

Now, this law is not currently in place, and is not expected to be enacted until 2020. It may well be challenged in court before then. The ACLU is confident that they can overturn such a law.

Still, those particular words will likely have at least some legal repercussions.

Slate had laid out all the worst possible repercussions of what such a law that categorizes fetuses as people could entail (including life in prison, which carries the death penalty, for a woman who aborts), though Planned Parenthood representatives have been quick to inform the Washington Post that this is mere speculation. The laws as they’re written would mostly be intended to punish doctors. It’s unlikely that a woman would actually be sentenced to death for abortion, though that’s certainly something some pro-life advocates are in favor of.

But it’s not outlandish to think that there might be legal repercussions for failing to carry a baby to term. It’s largely agreed that the biggest immediate threat the law in Georgia poses is that women who miscarry may be dragged into lengthy legal disputes, in part to find out whether or not a doctor assisted them in obtaining an abortion.

Those who think that the idea of police investigating miscarriages seems outlandish may be surprised to learn it already happens. In 2016, The New York Times reported that a woman who miscarried two fetuses at 24 weeks was charged with “abuse of a corpse,” a class C felony that carries a 3-10 year prison sentence in Arkansas. Her bail was set at $50,000 and she's still awaiting trial. In New York, a woman who was not wearing her seatbelt during a car crash, which the jury felt caused her unborn fetus to die, was sentenced up to nine years in prison.

The ruling was thrown out by New York’s high court as they noted that it could be applied to a pregnant woman doing anything that could potentially endanger a fetus, from having a glass of wine to shoveling snow.

Another woman in Virginia was sentenced to five months in jail after she gave birth to a stillborn at home. She was charged with concealing a dead body despite making the quite reasonable claim that, since the fetus was never alive, it "cannot be dead.”

When, in 2017, an Ohio woman was arrested after reporting that she gave birth to a stillborn, The New York Times noted:

The involvement of law enforcement only compounds these traumas. It may deter pregnant women who are miscarrying — and even those with unremarkable pregnancies — from seeking medical help, and it forces health care providers who ought to be caring for their patients to collect evidence. Time and time again, it also jeopardizes the well-being of children left behind when their mothers are jailed.

Before Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973, these situations used to be common. David Avallone, the son of the abortion rights activist Fran Avallone, recently tweeted:

“My mother was big in the abortion rights movement. In the early 1960s, when abortion was still illegal, she had a miscarriage at around six months. So she's covered in blood, with a dead fetus between her legs, and the doctor told her she couldn't be cleaned up yet. GUESS WHY? A full examination had to be done, and presented to a POLICE OFFICER, to prove my mom hadn't committed Manslaughter. Imagine that. Worst moment of your life, in pain, covered in blood, dead fetus. PLEASE WAIT LIKE THAT WHILE WE TREAT YOU LIKE A CRIMINAL.”

It’s important to remember that, despite the anti-choice idea that the minute an egg is fertilized it should be considered a full child, one in four confirmed pregnancies ends with miscarriage before 20 weeks.

That’s in terms of pregnancies women are aware of. Still more of them end before the woman was ever aware she was pregnant. Imagine being considered possibly guilty of killing a child every time you miscarry, because that’s what laws like the one in Georgia will lead to.

These are horrific measures that remind us every other aspect of women’s lives are less important than gestating children. Indeed, it seems that Georgia does not think women matter at all if, for any reason, they choose not carry children to term.

Georgia does not care about the fact that, as ReWire reports, women who want and are denied abortions experience:

More immediate anxiety; more serious health complications from pregnancy such as hemorrhage, eclampsia, and death; higher likelihood of continued violence from the man involved in the pregnancy; lower full-time employment; and, despite increased use of public assistance, greater poverty. Being denied a wanted abortion also reduces the chance that women achieve aspirational life goals in the next year such as getting a better job and finishing school. Nearly every aspect of her life is compromised.

When anti-abortion advocates say, “What about the children!?” Well, there are only so many lives a woman can lead. Forcing her to give birth to a child she does not want may well stop her from obtaining stable employment, a healthy relationship, and going on to have many children she does want and can provide for at a later date.

And despite these horrific measures, and the horrific results borne by women who can’t procure abortions, we know that places where abortion is criminalized do not see a significant decrease in abortions.

They do see a rise in unsafe, self-inflicted abortions.

In many cases, that means ordering the drug Misoprostol, a medication used to treat stomach ulcers that can also be used to self-induce an abortion. However, if women in places like Georgia are afraid to order Misoprostol, because it could create a paper trail, they have other horrendous options available right at home. They’ll throw themselves down stairs or consume bleach, as women in Ireland did, until abortion was legalized earlier this year.

The fact that women only recently overturned these laws in Ireland is a reminder of how common and destructive laws like these are around the world. The difference is that other places are mostly improving for the better. In Rwanda, for instance, the President pardoned more than 367 people in April who were imprisoned “for the offenses of abortion, complicity in abortion and infanticide”—in other words, the same thing the state of Georgia is now looking to throw doctors in jail for.

As pertains to Rwanda, Asia Russell, executive director of the Health Global Access Project, told The Guardian:

“Rwanda is responding to the public health and human rights crisis that is created as a result of criminalizing access to abortion. Of course, those people never should have been the target of criminal proceedings in the first place.”

What will human rights advocates around the world begin saying about us, do you think?

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