After being shot in the stomach by another person, Marshae Jones lost her pregnancy. Late last month, prosecutors in Alabama unsealed an indictment for manslaughter against her—based on the claim that being pregnant, and being the victim of what would ordinarily be viewed as crime, is itself a crime.
This cruel and unsupportable interpretation of Alabama law is consistent with anti-abortion and “fetal personhood” ideology that empowers state actors to control and incarcerate more Black, brown and poor white people.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women called on the District Attorney of Jefferson County’s Bessemer Division, Lynneice Washington, to dismiss the charges against Jones and not pursue any criminal charges against her or any other person because of pregnancy or any pregnancy outcome. (Prosecutors Wednesday announced they were, in fact, dropping the charges.)
NAPW cases and research confirm that Jones was not the first woman in the U.S. to have been prosecuted for manslaughter or murder for experiencing a pregnancy loss. Such arrests have been made even in states where the manslaughter and murder laws specifically provide that the pregnant woman herself may not be subject to arrest for a pregnancy loss.
Jones was also far from the first woman in Alabama to be targeted for arrest because of pregnancy. Alabama currently leads the nation in arrests of pregnant women, and Jones joined hundreds of other women in that state whose pregnancies have provided the basis for arrest—for things that would not be considered crimes if the person were not pregnant.
These law enforcement actions are the result of Alabama’s anti-abortion laws, including its newest one defining child and person to be “a human being specifically including an unborn child in utero at any stage of development”; Alabama’s homicide law, which provides that a pregnant woman herself may not be arrested for losing a pregnancy, nevertheless defines the victim of a criminal homicide or assault to mean “a human being, including an unborn child in utero at any stage of development”; the state constitution’s new Amendment 2, which makes it state policy, under all of Alabama’s laws, to “recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children”; and State Supreme Court decisions declaring that the law making it a crime to expose a child to an environment in which controlled substances are distributed may be used to prosecute women who are pregnant and use any amount of any controlled substance, including medication prescribed to them.
But Jones’ case was the first in which protection of “unborn life” has provided the basis for an arrest of a woman because she was pregnant and was herself a victim of what would ordinarily be considered a criminal act.
Anti-abortion advocates have put into place laws that are being used to arrest, convict and lock up women because they experience miscarriages and stillbirths, or are in any situation in which their own lives and health are in danger. This idea has no limits. Pregnant women who go to work despite a doctor’s advice for bed rest or who work in dangerous or physically taxing jobs could be arrested if they experience a pregnancy loss or for such crimes as endangering the welfare of a child.
Alabama has failed to protect pregnant women’s health and lives—it has refused to expand Medicaid, is working hard to ban safe abortion, and has left too many rural women without access to care when they are continuing a pregnancy to term. In 2017, Alabama had the second-worst maternal death rate in the nation, and the state has failed to address Alabama’s appalling rates of Black infant mortality. Instead, the state has now made it a crime for a woman to be unable to protect herself.
Criminalizing women like Jones won’t protect any life, won’t create healthy communities, won’t advance maternal or child health and won’t achieve any justice. It will, however, affirm the message that state police power may be used to control and lock up pregnant women.