Posted by: Ophelia | May 5, 2008

Sound Off

A pregnant bank teller who lost the twins she was carrying after being shot during a holdup choked back tears Saturday as she recalled lying on the bank’s floor, bleeding and pleading for help, as the gunman demanded money from her co-workers.

Katherin Shuffield, who had been five months pregnant, said that a nurse showed she and Jason photos of their twins, and that each fetus could have fit in the palm of her hand.

“When I see the pictures with my husband we always try to be strong and don’t cry. But it’s hard to see that they were so little,” she said, her voice cracking.

Indiana law allows prosecutors to charge people with murder in cases where a fetus dies, but only if the mother is at least seven months pregnant.

Because Shuffield was five months pregnant, officials can pursue charges only of feticide, which carries a lesser sentence of two to eight years in prison. The maximum prison time for murder is 65 years under state law. (CNN)

A new twist on the feticide concept has now brought the issue full circle. In Whitner v. State, No. 2446 (S.C. Oct 27,1997) the Supreme Court of South Carolina held that a viable fetus was a “person” for the purposes of the state’s child neglect statute. In doing so, the court upheld a woman’s conviction for criminal child neglect for ingesting crack cocaine while pregnant in her third term, thus causing her child to be born with cocaine products in its system. This blurs the tidy distinction between maternal-authorized actions and non-maternal-authorized actions. (Feticide statues and cases)

These prosecutions, if upheld would create legal precedent for the finding that women, upon becoming pregnant lose their civil and human rights. If a pregnant woman can be viewed as a child abuser before she ever gives birth, or as a murderer because she can not guarantee a healthy birth outcome, she ceases to exist as a full human being and full rights bearing citizen. (National Advocates for Pregnant Women)

So what are your thoughts? Treating fetuses as “people” seems to be contingent on harm, and furthermore–the person doing the harm. Maternal harm = bad, non maternal harm = what can we do? Obviously granting the legal personhood to unborn fetuses, creates an issue (perhaps even a slippery slope?). At the same time, the artificial borders enacted by the courts for abortion and late term abortion already appear to draw a line in the sand denoting the point at which a fetus become viable, and furthermore turns into a potential person. The pregnancy in question was past the point of viability, and the woman intended to carry it to term–so what should the punishment be for a person who takes this choice away from her?

Personally, I feel that the person experiencing the harm is the one who defines that harm–but there is no room for that in the laws as they stand. I hate to analogize things that aren’t analogous, but it really reminds me of rape prosecutions. There is little room for defining your experience as rape alone, it has to be supported by the evidence, as determined by the laws, that support the notion of rape. Your words and impression of your experience is not enough. Likewise, the impression of a person carrying a fetus does not carry weight in determining the personhood of that fetus. So…thoughts?



  1. It’s like the lawmakers are trying to take as many rights away from women and choices from them to keep them in line. I can purposely kill a woman’s fetus at 7 months and the woman can force a miscarriage at 7 months, and I’ll only go to jail for 8 years maximum and she can go to jail for 65? How is this fair? I guess because I have a penis, I am protected apparently.

  2. Of course I am opposed to the obvious double standard here, and fully support a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. But I am more ambivalent about women who act irresponsibly with regard to their health during a pregnancy, when that fetus is going to be brought to term.

    When I was growing up, there was a foster family in my community who adopted 5 children from the same parents–parents who had 11 children in all. All of these children were given up to the state immediately after their births, and all had varying degree of FAS. At least 3 of the children will need to be in a nursing home situation for the rest of their lives, and of the 5 who were adopted each has pretty extreme behavioral problems.

    Now, my opinion always had been that the original parents had been extremely irresponsible, and didn’t deserve the right to have children. However, now I know that there were probably many factors outside of their control, such as addiction, poverty, limited access to birth control, possible abuse, etc. But I don’t know the details, and so don’t know for certain.

    How does one decide? If indeed these parents were bringing all of these unwanted children into the world, and their carelessness and indiscretion rather than unavoidable socio-economic circumstances, were to blame for their children’s illnesses, shouldn’t they be held accountable? Does the mother’s right to drink while pregnant really trump the rights of the child to have a healthy life?

    Knowing one of these children (now an adult) personally, I don’t think his mother should have been able to drink during her pregnancy. But, then, what should the system’s role be? I maintain that, probably, if this couple had had access to affordable birth control or abortion services or to an affordable rehab program then likely their 11 children would not have been born, or been born with the debilitating syndrome that prevents them from living normal, healthy lives.

    It’s a difficult call to make, because you can’t tell a woman who is planning to terminate her pregnancy that anything she does is “child abuse”–that would be patently absurd. And you can’t say that a woman who is planning on carrying her baby to term has no responsibility for the health of that child. So the whole thing must rest on the woman’s choice. But then, what happens when a woman changes her mind and decides to carry an at first unwanted fetus to term? Should she still be held accountable for the health of that child if she had done something knowingly to jeopardize it?

    These are very difficult questions, and the answers to them lie beyond the pro-life/pro-choice debate; I am a firm believer that many of the common ethical questions about abortion will be answered when our society steps up and addresses issues like the affordability of healthcare and birth control, the response of authorities and the media to domestic abuse, the education system, the destigmatization of drug addiction etc, etc.

    Here’s some food for thought…

  3. “Does the mother’s right to drink while pregnant really trump the rights of the child to have a healthy life?”

    See, I’m torn over this. Obviously, I would prefer that if a person makes the choice to be a parent, that they take steps to ensure a healthy delivery, but I mean where is the line? I hate to employ slippery slope, but I mean, what about women who don’t go to prenatal doctor visits? They are putting their children in harms way–are they abusing their potential children? Women who drink caffeine, or eat too many types of mercury laden fish, or women who have physically dangerous jobs could all be accused of child abuse if their children don’t turn out 100% healthy. I don’t agree with intentional drug use during pregnancy, but again, addictions don’t have time lines, we should be trying to get these women help, not tossing them into jail cells (we’ve seen how well the war on drugs has worked). It’s a fine line that I’m afraid to walk. I’m afraid that the breadth of “harm” will inevitably widen if these sorts of prosecutions are allowed to continue, and we know the propensity of our government to trample the rights of women. I can easily imagine “precautionary” arrests of women who have a history of addiction/drug abuse. I’m reminded of a few months ago hearing about how hospitals were being advised to treat female patients as “potentially pregnant”. I want to protect the rights of children who are going to be born (although, I’m presuming that they are willingly being carried to term, this isn’t always the case–should this factor in?) but the manner through which this protection is implemented will inevitably steamroller women’s rights in the effort. So the question then becomes whose rights are more important, and that’s a sticky answer.

  4. “I hate to employ slippery slope, but I mean, what about women who don’t go to prenatal doctor visits?”

    This is an excellent point an hearkens back to the issue of affordable health care and simple choice. The system does not go after women who cannot afford pre-natal care, but will go after women for other issues outside of their control like addiction. As you said in the original post: “Maternal harm = bad, non maternal harm = what can we do?” The system is unwilling to acknowledge its own shortcomings and so will will either blame women, or blame fate. Then there is the issue of choice. Some parents refuse prenatal care because of faith-based healing practices (I recall a similar conversation we had on this topic last month). Traditionally, the system has let this go untouched, because unlike the reproductive rights of women, the right to practices religion freely has long been held sacred in this country. Is this choice really any different than the other lifestyle choices you mentioned like drinking coffee, or eating shellfish?

    “I can easily imagine “precautionary” arrests of women who have a history of addiction/drug abuse.”

    Wow, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but given the history of this country’s handling of drug use, that is a totally terrifyingly plausible outcome. Just on that probability alone I think I am willing to concede that, at least until the system is fixed (lol, boy do I sound altruistic), these types of prosecutions should not continue, no matter the case.

    Perhaps one day these cases will be able to be dealt with on an individual basis, with all of the unique factors of the case being taken into careful consideration and help being provided accordingly, but until the system stops trying to use individual rulings to set precedents that consistently strangle all women’s choices, I’m gonna have to say no to these prosecutions.

  5. but until the system stops trying to use individual rulings to set precedents that consistently strangle all women’s choices, I’m gonna have to say no to these prosecutions.

    The problem isn’t with the concept that something ought to be done when (inevitable) children are harmed, but I just don’t trust the manner through which laws are penned and enforced to do only that. When the system is broken, it’ll be hard pressed to find an effective solution to much of anything.

  6. This is a very horrible incident. The law is not right. This couple wanted their babies and now there is no hope for having them as they were taken from in a greedy act of robbery. The person that caused the loss of the twins should be tried for double murder. What difference does it make if the mother was five months pregnant or seven months pregnant. They are still human beings and the law should protect them and not put limits on the length of the pregnancy. I feel extremely bad for the parents. They have lost two children they never see or know the rest of their life. They will have a void in their live. The pain of losing a child or children is never forgotten by the parents. God Bless the parents and may God give them more children.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: