Stillbirth and the American justice system

What tales would Charles Dickens have fashioned about the enduring miseries in the 21st Century? What might he have made of documented cases of hundreds of American women detained, arrested or convicted for things authorities viewed as harmful to their unborn children? They include:

  • An Indiana woman who attempted suicide while pregnant spent a year in jail before murder charges were dropped.
  • An Iowa woman was arrested and jailed after falling down the stairs and suffering a miscarriage.
  • A New Jersey woman who refused to sign a preauthorization for a cesarean section didn’t end up needing the operation, yet was charged with child endangerment and lost custody of her baby.
  • Women suspected of using illegal drugs.

Nina Martin of ProPublica has been following this and related issues. An excerpt of her latest story, A Stillborn Child and a Charge of Murder:

Rennie Gibbs’s daughter, Samiya, was a month premature when she simultaneously entered the world and left it, never taking a breath. To experts who later examined the medical record, the stillborn infant’s most likely cause of death was also the most obvious: the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. But within days of Samiya’s delivery in November 2006, Steven Hayne, the American state of Mississippi’s de facto medical examiner at the time, came to a different conclusion. Autopsy tests had turned up traces of a cocaine byproduct in Samiya’s blood, and Hayne declared her death a homicide, caused by “cocaine toxicity.”

The story, which like all ProPublica work is not behind our paywall, is part of F&O’s Justice section.

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