Bad news came from Indiana on May 11. The state Supreme Court has refused to review charges of attempted feticide and murder against Bei Bei Shuai. Just before Christmas 2010, Shuai, who was thirty-three weeks pregnant, attempted to kill herself by consuming rat poison after her boyfriend, father of the baby, abruptly announced he was married and abandoned her to return to his family. Rushed to the hospital, she had a Caesarean section, but her newborn daughter died after a few days of life. (Here’s my column on the case.) Despite amicus briefs from eighty respected experts and relevant medical and social organizations—the state of Indiana, for reasons best known to itself, will do its best to send Shuai to prison. Potential sentence: forty-five to sixty-five years. The only good news is that after spending 435 days in jail, Shuai is now out on bail.
The message to women is clear: you are criminally liable to the state for your conduct during pregnancy, even if you are mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or whatever you want to call the extreme psychological state in which people try to kill themselves after receiving a terrible life-upending blow. Isn’t that what the coroner used to say: someone took his own life “while the balance of his mind was disturbed”? Suicide by pregnant women is not rare; it is, in fact, the fifth leading cause of death for them.
To call what Shuai did murder seems to overlook the fact that she was trying to kill herself. But this prosecution is unfortunately in line with a national trend of criminalizing the behavior of pregnant women whether through drug use, self-abortion—even, as in one case, falling down the stairs.