April 19, 2011 -- Advocates for women have rallied around a suicidal pregnant woman who survived a dose of rat poison, but has been jailed on murder charges because her poisoned infant died shortly after birth.
The state of Indiana has charged Bei Bei Shuai, 34, with murder and feticide. She faces up to 85 years in prison if convicted.
"This case would have huge implications," said Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of The National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a co-counsel for Bei Bei Shuai, the Indiana woman who tried to kill herself Dec. 23. "This case creates essentially an exception. Everyone that attempts suicide will be treated to the public health system, but pregnant women will be arrested and put in jail for rest of their lives."
Shuai's attorney, Lisa Pence, has filed a motion for the case to be thrown out, saying it would set a precedent that discriminates against pregnant women and would discourage them from seeking medical care.
"This is just another attack on a women's body," Pence said. "There has never been a case like this filed in Indiana. This is untested and unprecedented. Even if we win she will remain incarcerated for months. My hope is that the judge will ultimately dismiss this trial."
David Rimstidt, the chief deputy on the prosecuting team, said Shuai wrote a letter before attempting to commit suicide that says she is going to "take this baby with me to Hades."
"Everybody is trying to put this into an agenda item rather than a prosecution," Rimstidt said. "It's about this woman having a specific intent to cause this harm that is against the law."
Rimstidt said the only reason this case is so contentious is because the baby was unborn when Shuai attempted to kill it.
"The fact that it was in utero makes it a different case," he said.
The prosecutor rejected arguments that convicting Shuai would discourage women from seeking help for problematic pregnancies.
"It would only have a chilling effect on women who have a specific intent to kill their fetus," Rimstidt said. "If you have a distressed pregnancy for any other reason, no crime would ever be charged for that."
After eating rat poison pellets, Shuai, 34, did not die immediately, as she intended, and allowed two friends to take her to the hospital, according to a motion filed by Shuai's attorney. Six days later Shuai had cesarean surgery and gave birth to a premature baby girl who was suffering seizures upon delivery. The baby died four days later.
Shuai, who immigrated to the U.S. from China 10 years ago, remained in the hospital's psychiatric unit for over a month. She was arrested March 14 and has been in jail ever since because Indiana does not offer bail to most murder suspects.
Womens Groups Defend Pregnant Woman Who Survived Suicide But Infant Died
The American Civil Liberties Union and medical groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association filed amicus briefs to support Shuai's release.
"When the law and medicine intersect, we thought it was important to address the issue," said David Orentlicher, the attorney who filed the brief on behalf the medical groups. "We find this such an inappropriate use of the law and that's why these groups got involved."
Orentlicher said that while cases such as these aim to protect fetuses, they actually jeopardize them and that prosecutors are being counterproductive by trying to handle this situation in court.
"I understand the desire to do something, but this is one of those cases where the best thing they can do is not act. This is not a matter for prosecutors to resolve. It's a matter for doctors to address," Orentlicher said.
A similar case in South Carolina in the 1990s found that mothers can be charged with child abuse if they take illegal drugs during their pregnancies.
"South Carolina is the only state where as a result of judicial activism the court says women can be held liable for the outcome of their pregnancies," Paltrow said.
Paltrow said that if Shuai is convicted of murder, "Women will be discouraged from seeking help because even admitting that they have mental health problems could be attempted fetal homicide or risk of fetal homicide."
Orentlicher said a conviction would increase abortion rates.
"Some women will recognize the way to avoid prosecution is to get an abortion, and policy that encourages an abortion doesn't make any sense either," he said.
Prosecutor Rimstidt said the case has nothing to do with abortion.
"So many people have looked at this case and have put it into an agenda that they've got," he said. "We're not talking about an abortion provider or the act of an abortion so that has nothing to do with this case."