Rennie Gibbs, a Mississippi woman, was 16 when she gave birth to a stillborn child in 2006. Although the baby was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck, a medical examiner found "traces of a cocaine byproduct" in the infant's body and ruled the death a homicide because Gibbs used cocaine at some point during her pregnancy. A Mississippi judge dismissed Gibbs' case this week, saying that no law clearly applied, and cited its similarity to another case recently dismissed by the Supreme Court.
But the fact that Gibbs was indicted in the first place highlights how "fetal harm" cases criminalize mothers for allegedly harming their unborn children.
Laws that recognize fetuses as victims of crimes, including homicide and child abuse and neglect, are common in the U.S. Some of those laws, especially those relating to fetal homicide, were originally written in response to crimes against pregnant women, and were supposedly intended to protect pregnant women and their children; but such laws have been used to charge women for harming the fetuses they carry. In some states, evidence of even a single use of a controlled substance during pregnancy can lead to civil child abuse or neglect charges, according to Lynn Paltrow, the Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
One study on the topic found that, between 1973 and 2005, at least 413 women -- which the study's authors suggest is a severe undercount due to data limitations -- across 44 states, some federal jurisdictions and Washington, D.C., had state action taken against them for alleged crimes against their fetuses. Some faced arrest, charges based on civil child welfare laws, or forced medical interventions. Last fall, a Wisconsin woman was arrested after refusing her doctor's orders to start an anti-addiction drug after she admitted during a prenatal checkup that she had a history of pill addiction, but had quit on her own. She was subsequently arrested under the state's civil child-welfare code and sent to a treatment facility under threat of jail.
Clarification: This story previously stated that the Wisconsin woman who refused to take an anti-addiction drug was arrested for child endangerment. She was arrested under a 1998 law known as the "cocaine mom" act that amended the civil child-welfare code. A previous version of this graphic identified the Medical Center of South Carolina; it should have read the Medical University of South Carolina.