Oklahoma Woman's Miscarriage Gets Her Jailed for Manslaughter

Brittney Poolaw's case is gaining attention
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 20, 2021 12:24 AM CDT
Updated Oct 23, 2021 2:40 PM CDT
Oklahoma Woman Convicted of Manslaughter for Miscarriage
Stock photo.   (Getty Images / BCFC)

(Newser) – After a one-day trial, a 21-year-old Oklahoma woman was on Oct. 6 convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison—because she had a miscarriage. The case of Brittney Poolaw, who was 19 when she lost her pregnancy at home at between 15 and 17 weeks' gestation, has been generating outrage, CBS News reports. Poolaw, a member of the Comanche Nation, visited a hospital after suffering the miscarriage, and admitted to staff there that she had used methamphetamine and pot recently. A medical examiner cited that as a condition "contributing" to the miscarriage, but also listed were a congenital abnormality found in the fetus and placental abruption, a condition in which the placenta detaches from the womb. Even so, the jury took less than three hours to find her guilty.

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Advocates are crying foul, with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women pointing out that Oklahoma's murder and manslaughter laws don't apply to miscarriages, defined as pregnancy losses that occur before 20 weeks gestation—long before a fetus has a chance of surviving outside the womb at around 24 weeks. Even in a pregnancy that was further along, the group says, "Oklahoma law prohibits prosecution of the 'mother of the unborn child' unless she committed 'a crime that caused the death of the unborn child,'" and there is no evidence Poolaw's drug use caused the pregnancy loss. Lastly, the group points out, health officials and medical associations have long called for pregnant women with drug dependencies to be treated, not punished.

"That dystopian future everyone keeps warning about is already here," tweeted author Jessica Valenti, one of many similar sentiments to be found on social media. "Poolaw’s case is an injustice, but it is also a warning," writes Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times. "This is what happens when the law treats embryos and fetuses as people with rights that supersede the rights of those who carry them. And it offers a glimpse of the sort of prosecutions that could become common in a world in which Roe v. Wade is overturned, one we could be living in as soon as next year." Goldberg notes that had Poolaw had access to reproductive health care, she may not have found herself jailed for the past year and a half awaiting trial: She told authorities she wasn't sure she wanted the baby, but didn't know how to get an abortion.

Pregnancy has been criminalized in this way in 413 cases between 1973 and 2005—and 1,254 more between 2006 and 2020. According to NAPW, those cases include "women who have been arrested for falling down stairs, drinking alcohol, giving birth at home, being in a 'dangerous' location, having HIV, experiencing a drug dependency problem, or attempting suicide. The majority of women subjected to pregnancy-based prosecutions are low-income women, drug-using women, and women of color." Most of those cases involve women who were not intending to end their pregnancies. If Roe is overturned, there are tens of thousands of crimes in federal and state criminal codes on the books that could put women who do intend to do so in danger. Poolaw's attorneys will appeal her conviction. (Read more women's rights stories.)

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