After her pregnancy ended in stillbirth last year, a woman was charged with murder in California. Kings County prosecutors said the fetus died because the woman, Chelsea Becker, used methamphetamines during her pregnancy.
The case has caught the attention of civil rights groups and reproductive health advocates, who have argued that the indictment against Ms. Becker could set a dangerous precedent for criminalizing the choices women make while pregnant.
Ms. Becker, who has been in jail since her arrest in November and on $ 2 million bail, has petitioned the murder charges. It was rejected by the Kings County Supreme Court in June.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra weighed in on Friday.
Mr Becerra wrote an amicus letter in support of Ms. Becker's petition, arguing that the Supreme Court's interpretation of constitutional law would "expose all women who have lost a pregnancy to threats of criminal investigation and possible prosecution for murder". He added that the petition to end the criminal proceedings against them should be granted.
"Our laws in California do not condemn women suffering from pregnancy loss, and in our filing today we make it clear that this law has been misused to the detriment of women, children and families," Becerra added in a statement.
Ms. Becker's attorneys are bringing the case to the California 5th District Court of Appeals. They also filed a habeas corpus charter to advocate the release of Ms. Becker, citing concerns about the coronavirus, which has increased in prisons and prisons across the United States.
Ms. Becker, 26, of Hanford, central California near Fresno, was eight and a half months pregnant when she gave birth to a stillborn baby in September.
A November Hanford Police Department statement said the Kings County coroner's office classified the death of the fetus as murder because of the toxic levels of methamphetamine in the fetus' system. Ms. Becker admitted that during her tenure she last used methamphetamine only three days before the birth of the stillborn fetus. "
Ms. Becker's lawyers have argued that claims that the stillbirth was caused by methamphetamine have no scientific basis.
Phil Esbenshade, the Kings County's assistant district attorney, said the case depends on whether the state's criminal code exempts pregnant women from criminal liability in such cases. "This is not about abortion or women's reproductive rights," he said. "This is a case of a person who performed certain acts that resulted in the death of a viable fetus."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California is among 38 states where the fetus has been recognized as a victim of violence against a pregnant woman. In recent years, women in states such as Indiana, Oklahoma, and Mississippi have been charged with feticide, manslaughter, and murder. Last year in Alabama, a woman was charged with manslaughter after another woman shot her in the stomach and her 5-month-old fetus did not survive. The case aroused national outrage, and those charges were dropped a week later.
In California, another Kings County woman, Adora Perez, was charged with murder in 2018 after being stillbirth after using methamphetamine. Ms. Perez, who has been prosecuted by the same District Attorney as Ms. Becker, pleaded guilty to the lesser manslaughter charge and is now serving an 11-year prison term.
Fierce reproductive rights battles have erupted in legislatures and courts across the country in recent years, often leading to sweeping state-level abortion restrictions, despite the Supreme Court kicking anti-abortionists back in June.
Jacqueline Goodman, an attorney for Ms. Becker, said the outcome of her case would reverberate beyond Kings County's borders and that law enforcement actions like this one could scare pregnant women into seeking medical care or substance abuse counseling.
"It's part of a nationwide effort to criminalize abortion," she said of the murder charges. "That's where it comes from."
Ultimately, Ms. Becker's case is about the courts interpreting a small subsection of the California Penal Code. The Criminal Code, Section 187, is the state's primary murder law, defining it as "the willful killing of a human or fetus with intent."
The reference to a fetus was added in 1970. This amendment, written by a former Republican MP, W. Craig Biddle, came in response to a case where a man attacked his pregnant wife in order to destroy the fetus she was carrying. The man's murder conviction was overturned because the penal code did not identify fetuses as potential victims of murder.
The 1970 amendment not only added a reference to the fetus; Exceptions were also made to what might be considered murder, including cases where "the act was requested, assisted, facilitated, or consented to by the mother of the fetus".
Mr Biddle died in 2018. However, in a 1992 court statement, he said the “only intent” of the amendment was “to criminalize as murder the willful assault of a third party on a pregnant woman that resulted in the death of her fetus . ”
He added, "No legislator has ever proposed that this law, as it was finally passed, could be used to punish the murderous behavior of a pregnant woman that resulted in the death of her fetus."
But Kings County District Attorney's Mr Esbenshade said Monday that nothing in the law "apologizes for a mother's reckless or indifferent wrongful conduct that results in the unlawful death of her fetus."
Daniel N. Arshack, attorney for Ms. Becker, who also serves as an advisor to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a not-for-profit organization based in New York, said the prosecution's interpretation could allow women to be prosecuted for stillbirths for example from a car accident if the woman was not wearing a seat belt.
Mr. Arshack welcomed Mr. Becerra's Amicus letter and said that Ms. Becker's case should be dismissed. "The attorney general's opinions are not binding, but they carry a lot of weight," he said. "If it doesn't make a difference, we can appeal to the California Supreme Court."