The state of Mississippi is now prosecuting mothers for unintentional miscarriages or stillbirths. Nina Buckwalter, a mother who, in 2009, gave birth to a stillborn baby girl 31 weeks into her pregnancy is being prosecuted for manslaughter. The case was dismissed by a Lamar County judge; however, the case has now been brought to the Mississippi Supreme court to reinstate a charge of culpable negligence, resulting in manslaughter.
The district attorney is claiming that 29-year-old Buckhalter “did willfully, unlawfully, feloniously, kill her unborn child, a human being, by culpable negligence,” by her alleged use of drugs. The prosecution argued that the methamphetamine identified in Buckhalter’s system ultimately caused the death of her child.
The case, which was originally heard by a grand jury in Lamar County, Mississippi, was thrown out by a Lamar County circuit judge because the current law is not intended to criminalize pregnant women whose drug use leads to harm an unborn fetus.
The Mississippi law in question describes circumstances where a person can be entitled to wrongful death, and includes statutes related to a the death of an unborn child. The law specifically excludes actions committed by the mother, thus the case was thrown out by the district courts.
Four cases involving stillborn deaths allegedly caused by drug abuse have been filed against mothers in Mississippi since 2006 and over 400 cases have been documented that have been used to detain or jail pregnant women related to their unborn child.
Now the decision is in the hands of the Mississippi Supreme Court, who heard the oral arguments April 2, and is expected to rule soon on whether or not Buckhalter can be tried for manslaughter.
If the prosecution is permitted to progress, the case could set a dangerous precedent for the state of Mississippi and potentially spark a wave of similar prosecutions nationwide. In fact, Buchkalter’s attorney Robert Duff believes that “this prosecution could open up a real can of worms where every action that a woman takes during her pregnancy could be subject to review by the police and by the prosecutors if she unintentionally suffered a miscarriage or a stillbirth.”
The prosecution of women for an unintentional miscarriage is injudicious in nature. The case has opened the door to the prosecution of women for any number of potential causes. At this rate, the courts will have the authority to prosecute a woman for culpable neglect because she forgot to take prenatal vitamins.
Sara Papantonio is a write and researcher for Ring of Fire.