Debate Magazine

Mothers of Stillborn Babies Charged with Murder

Posted on the 29 June 2011 by Cilaw

Mothers of Stillborn Babies Charged with Murder

To paraphrase George Dubya: misogynists never stop thinking of ways to harm women, and neither does America. The latest joyous news from the motherland (a term I use advisedly) is that troubled women are being prosecuted for murder after suffering miscarriages or still-births. This is more than insane. It’s baffling. Despite the pro-life palaver America doesn’t generally give a damn about post-natal child welfare.

Here are some facts: in 2007 more than 1700 American children were killed through abuse and neglect. In Alabama, where Amanda Kimbrough is in prison after losing her premature son, 20% of children live in poverty and it has upwards of 10,000 confirmed abuse cases each year. Mississippi, where Rennie Gibbs faces life in prison, has a child-poverty rate of over 30% and more than 5000 confirmed cases of abuse each year. That’s just the stuff that makes the reports. Governments don’t keep statistics on how many children they murder by refusing to provide free healthcare; or how many they leave to suffer poor nutrition, inadequate housing, and meaningless education.

Since prosecuting women is not about protecting children what purpose does it serve? Reading the amicus curae briefs filed by teams of legal and healthcare experts in the Gibbs and Kimbrough cases is instructive.

Rennie Gibbs was just 16 when her baby was stillborn. The state is trying her as an adult, for murder, alleging that the still-birth was caused by cocaine use. For some mush-headed moralists this is enough (“What kind of terrible human being takes drugs while pregnant?” etc.) Before galloping off on their high-horse, however, they should consider the fact that all sorts of things cause miscarriage and still-birth. As the Gibbs brief notes:

People wrongly believe that women have a high degree of control over their pregnancy outcomes. The longstanding and constant medical reality, however, is that as many as 20-30 percent of all pregnancies will end in miscarriage or stillbirth.

Not just crackhead pregnancies, teen pregnancies, women-of-colour pregnancies, or unwed pregnancies – all pregnancies. Including those of law-abiding suburban wives who drive SUVs and take their vitamins. The difference is the latter are more likely to get flowers than be slapped with a murder charge. The Gibbs brief spells it out: “Low income women… [are] particularly vulnerable to punishment” (italics mine).

The same theme emerges in the case of Amanda Kimbrough. Her premature son died shortly after birth. She was sentenced to ten years in prison after admitting to having smoked methamphetamine once during her pregnancy. Ms Kimbrough was denied funding to call experts witnesses who could have testified on her behalf that: “Amphetamine abuse does not seem to be associated with any consistent increase in congenital abnormalities… [And] cocaine is no more harmful to a fetus than nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor (italics mine).

These women weren’t prosecuted for taking drugs; they were prosecuted for being poor. In a culture that worships money, anyone without it is not just disposable, but potentially dangerous. The richest twenty percent of the US population holds eighty percent of its wealth and economic apartheid, like all other forms of oppression, requires brutal enforcement. Rennie Gibbs and Amanda Kimbrough are being persecuted to remind women that bodily autonomy, like everything else in America, is a privilege of those who can afford it.

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