Oklahoma woman convicted of manslaughter over miscarriage

‘Poolaw’s case is a tragedy,’ says rights organisation, as court sentences her to four years in jail

Stuti Mishra
Wednesday 20 October 2021 15:31 BST
<p>A 21-year-old woman has been sentenced to four years in jail after she suffered a miscarriage </p>

A 21-year-old woman has been sentenced to four years in jail after she suffered a miscarriage

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An Oklahoma woman’s conviction under the charges of third degree manslaughter for a miscarriage she suffered has sparked outrage among rights groups.

Indigenous woman Brittney Poolaw was sentenced to four years in a state prison by Comanche County Courthouse this month for a miscarriage she suffered last year. A notice of intent to appeal was filed by her lawyer last week.

The prosecution alleged 21-year-old Poolaw was using methamphetamine — a nervous system stimulant often used as a recreational drug — and it was one of the several “conditions contributing” to the miscarriage. An autopsy confirmed the presence of meth in the foetus.

However, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) said in a statement that there was no evidence that her meth use caused the miscarriage. They added that the state’s murder and manslaughter laws don’t apply to those who suffer miscarriages before 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“And, even when applied to later losses, Oklahoma law prohibits prosecution of the mother of the unborn child unless she committed a crime that caused the death of the unborn child,” the statement added.

“Ms Poolaw’s case is a tragedy,” NAPW said. “She has suffered the trauma of pregnancy loss, has been jailed for a year and a half during a pandemic, and was charged and convicted of a crime without basis in law or science.”

“This prosecution went forward against somebody who had a pregnancy loss before the foetus was considered viable,” Lynn Paltrow, executive director of NAPW, was quoted by Associated Press as saying.

“In this case, you not only have a miscarriage rather than a stillbirth early in pregnancy, but the medical examiner’s report doesn’t even claim that methamphetamine was the cause.”

Poolaw, who suffered the miscarriage at her residence and later approached a local hospital, was between 15-17 weeks pregnant, according to medical records. However, she has already spent 18 months in jail since her arrest as the court set a $20,000 bond which she could not afford.

According to the New York Times, Poolaw told the detective in her statement that “when she found out she was pregnant she didn’t know if she wanted the baby or not. She said she wasn’t familiar with how or where to get an abortion.”

The case has sparked outrage on social media with people terming it “dystopian”.

Massachusetts representative Ayanna Presley wrote: “Families experiencing pregnancy and infant loss need care and support, not stigma.”

“That dystopian future everyone keeps warning about is already here,” author Jessica Valenti said.

“The state went after Poolaw because she used drugs - even though there’s no proof that’s why her pregnancy ended. Criminalising behaviour during pregnancy is a slippery slope: What’s next, arresting women who don’t take prenatals? Or who have a glass of wine?”

“Brittney Poolaw deserves healing for this trauma, *not* punishment,” user Karrie Higgins wrote.

“October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and Brittney Poolaw is facing 4 years in prison for something that happens in 1 in 4 pregnancies,” Nicole Marna wrote.

Cases against women for losing their pregnancies are becoming more common in the US in recent years, according NAPW. According to Dana Sussman, NAPW’s deputy executive director, 1,250 criminal cases have been filed against women related to loss of pregnancy between 2006 to 2015, a number three times higher than the data from 1973 to 2005.

“So we’re looking at three times as many cases in less than half the period of time as this first study,” Ms Sussman said. “This is far more common than I think most people would ever believe or understand.”

While there is no law banning abortion in Oklahoma, the organisation said the cases have been filed for “dangerous actions” or drug abuse.

“The majority of women subjected to pregnancy-based prosecutions are low-income women, drug-using women, and women of colour,” it said.

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