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Update on Bei Bei Shuai: Bad News From Indiana | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

Update on Bei Bei Shuai: Bad News From Indiana


Bei Bei Shuai. (AP Photo/Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department)

Bad news came from Indiana on May 11. The state Supreme Court has refused to review charges of attempted feticide and murder against Bei Bei Shuai. Just before Christmas 2010, Shuai, who was thirty-three weeks pregnant, attempted to kill herself by consuming rat poison after her boyfriend, father of the baby, abruptly announced he was married and abandoned her to return to his family. Rushed to the hospital, she had a Caesarean section, but her newborn daughter died after a few days of life. (Here’s my column on the case.) Despite amicus briefs from eighty respected experts and relevant medical and social organizations—the state of Indiana, for reasons best known to itself, will do its best to send Shuai to prison. Potential sentence: forty-five to sixty-five years. The only good news is that after spending 435 days in jail, Shuai is now out on bail.

The message to women is clear: you are criminally liable to the state for your conduct during pregnancy, even if you are mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or whatever you want to call the extreme psychological state in which people try to kill themselves after receiving a terrible life-upending blow. Isn’t that what the coroner used to say: someone took his own life “while the balance of his mind was disturbed”? Suicide by pregnant women is not rare; it is, in fact, the fifth leading cause of death for them.

To call what Shuai did murder seems to overlook the fact that she was trying to kill herself. But this prosecution is unfortunately in line with a national trend of criminalizing the behavior of pregnant women whether through drug use, self-abortion—even, as in one case, falling down the stairs.

The state law under which Shuai is charged was passed in 1979, as part of a post-Roe wave of “unborn victims of violence” laws that made the fetus a separate victim in crimes against pregnant women that caused her to miscarry or die—for example, attacks by muggers or abusive partners. Pushed by abortion opponents as part of their strategy of building up the legal “personhood” of the fetus, it nonetheless seemed like a good idea to a lot of well-meaning people: shouldn’t there be some acknowledgment that assaulting a woman and causing her to miscarry was a special kind of awful? According to Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which has taken on Shuai’s case, the legislative record clearly shows that lawmakers did not intend for the Indiana law to target pregnant women themselves. But that is what is happening.

Abortion opponents insist that nothing could be farther from their minds.

As Father Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, put it: “The pro-life movement is not out to punish women. Our goal, instead, is to stop child-killing. What would throwing women in jail do to accomplish that goal?”

Will the abortion opponents who claim to want only to protect women speak up for Bei Bei Shuai?

What you can do:

Sign the petition to Free Bei Bei Shuai.

Donate to National Advocates for Pregnant Women and help fund Shuai’s defense.

Watch a video of Bei Bei Shuai speaking about her case here.

Read my column about Bei Bei Shuai.

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