Reproductive rights advocates warned Thursday that the manslaughter conviction of a woman in Oklahoma following her pregnancy loss is just the latest case that sets a “dangerous precedent” for pregnant people across the country—and represents the result of numerous extreme restrictions on reproductive rights including Texas’ six-week abortion ban.
Twenty-year-old Brittney Poolaw was sentenced last week to four years in prison after being convicted of first-degree manslaughter, a charge that was applied to a miscarriage she experienced last year.
After seeking medical attention at Comanche County Hospital for the pregnancy loss, which happened early last year when Poolaw was 17 weeks pregnant, she was arrested in March 2020 and incarcerated with her bond set at $20,000. Unable to afford bail, Poolaw has now spent more than 18 months behind bars for her miscarriage.
Calling Poolaw’s prosecution and conviction “shameful and dangerous,” the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) said it is supporting Poolaw “as she explores her legal options.”
The group noted that at her one-day trial last week, a medical examiner’s report did not identify Poolaw’s use of controlled substances as the cause of her pregnancy loss. Oklahoma’s manslaughter and murder laws also do not apply to miscarriages, but a prosecutor nonetheless sought Poolaw’s conviction.
An autopsy report found that the fetus tested positive for methamphetamine, amphetamine, and another drug in the liver and brain, while the medical examiner detected a congenital abnormality, placental abruption, and chorioamnionitis, according to ABC affiliate KSWO.
“Ms. Poolaw’s case is a tragedy,” said the organization. “She has suffered the trauma of pregnancy loss, has been jailed for a year and half during a pandemic, and was charged and convicted of a crime without basis in law or science.”
NAPW also noted that major medical organizations including the American Medical Association, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), and the American Society of Addiction Medicine have advised against prosecuting and convicting pregnant women for drug use.
“Policies and practices that criminalize individuals during pregnancy and the postpartum period create fear of punishment… and prevents many pregnant people from seeking vital health services,” said ACOG in a policy statement in 2020.
Poolaw is the most recent woman to face prosecution over a pregnancy loss. As Common Dreams reported in 2019, Chelsea Cheyenne Becker faced first-degree murder charges following the stillbirth of her baby; a judge dismissed the charges earlier this year.
Also in 2019, Marshae Jones was charged with manslaughter in Alabama for experiencing a miscarriage after being shot, with police blaming Jones for starting a dispute with another woman and prosecutors saying she violated the state’s “fetal personhood” law.
Poolaw’s case is the latest to set a “dangerous precedent” for pregnant people across the U.S., tweeted one observer.
“For anyone wondering what the ‘endgame’ of abortion bans and restrictions could possibly be—it’s this,” tweeted Arpita Appannagari of the National Institute for Reproductive Health. “The worst is already happening to Black and brown women across the country.”
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Julia Conley is a Common Dreams staff writer.