Case Histories:

When “A Fetus Is a Person”... WOMEN Are Enslaved and Their Lives, Dreams, and Bodies Become Collateral Damage



In the last few months, many states have passed extreme laws banning abortion. These laws are aimed at overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion. Now that the Supreme Court is stacked with a majority of anti-abortion fascists, it is entirely possible that Roe will be overturned. And, even if women’s right to abortion is not outright overturned, this Court is almost certain to qualitatively further restrict women’s ability to exercise this right and further criminalize women and those who assist them in exercising control over their own bodies.

But these laws do not come out of nowhere—for decades, fueled by the powerful Christian fascist movement, states around the U.S. have been enacting laws that treat fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as if they were human beings. These laws treat women as mere incubators whose basic rights and even lives are subordinated to those developing clusters of cells inside their bodies.

The examples below—from among hundreds of cases—give a sense of the Dark Ages cruelty and misogyny (woman-hating) already being wreaked by these laws, and of the far greater horrors to come at the hands of this cruel and misogynist system and its current fascist commanders... if they are allowed to continue to reign and rule over society.

  • Laura Pemberton.1 In 1999 in Florida, Pemberton was in active labor at her home. Doctors believed that her decision to have a vaginal birth after having had a previous cesarean surgery posed a risk to her fetus, so they got a court order to force her to undergo another cesarean. A sheriff went to her home, took her into custody, strapped her legs together, and forced her to a hospital, where an emergency hearing was underway to determine “the state’s interest” in protecting the fetus still inside her. Lawyers argued on behalf of her fetus, but Pemberton was denied counsel, and forced to undergo the operation.
  • This is not unique—a 2003 University of Chicago study surveyed 42 maternal-fetal medicine programs in the U.S. and found that 14 percent reported having used court orders to compel unwilling women to have O.R. deliveries. The president of Improving Birth reports that her organization receives calls about this “every day....” An attorney who works on forced C-section cases said, “We’ve heard many times where women have said ‘I was forced to have a C-section.’”2
  • Regina McKnight.3 In 1999 in South Carolina, McKnight unexpectedly suffered a stillbirth which it later turned out was caused by an infection. She was arrested and charged with homicide by child abuse because she had used cocaine during her pregnancy. (Neonatal doctors say cocaine is less dangerous to a fetus than cigarettes or poor nutrition.4 ) The jury took 15 minutes to convict and she was sentenced to 12 years in prison. On appeal her original conviction was overturned, but then she was recharged with manslaughter to which she pled guilty and was then released from prison, having served eight years.
  • Rachael Lowe.5 In Wisconsin in 2005, Lowe’s husband took her to the hospital to seek treatment for addiction to Oxycontin. Because she was pregnant, some hospital staff reported her to the state under a law that allows a pregnant woman to be taken into custody if she is addicted to alcohol or controlled substances. Lowe was forcibly taken to a psychiatric hospital, given Xanax and other drugs but no prenatal care. A guardian ad litem [legal representative] was appointed for the fetus, but Lowe was denied counsel for 12 days after being taken into custody. After more than two weeks she was released, but remained under state surveillance and supervision until the end of her pregnancy.
  • Bei Bei Shuai.6 In Indiana in 2010, Shuai attempted suicide with rat poison after her boyfriend abandoned her. Doctors were able to save Shuai’s life, but her 33-week-old fetus died. A few months later, Shuai was arrested, charged with feticide (“murder” of a fetus), carrying a possible sentence of 45 years to life, and held at the high-security Marion County prison for 435 days. Eventually she pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal recklessness and was sentenced to time served.
  • Purvi Patel.7 In Indiana in 2013, Patel went to a hospital because she was bleeding profusely and explained that she had given birth to a stillborn boy. She was arrested and charged with feticide. The “evidence” against her included that she had texted a friend that she didn’t want to have a baby and that she had taken abortion-inducing drugs. (These drugs are legal but require a prescription, which Patel did not have.) The state argued that trying to self-induce abortion constituted attempted murder of the fetus. The state also claimed that the fetus had survived this “attempted murder” and had been born alive but allowed to die, so Patel was also charged with felony child neglect. Patel insisted the baby was stillborn, but the state wielded the “lung-float test” to insist the baby had taken at least one breath before dying, making it Patel’s fault. This test was developed in the 17th century, and according to a respected pathologist, is “absolutely discredited ... it boggles my mind that in the 21st century... this test is still being relied upon.”8
  • Both science and Patel’s word were disregarded—she was convicted and sentenced to 20 years. Eventually the feticide charge was overturned, but she was resentenced to a three-year term for “child neglect.” She served almost two years in prison.

The above cases are not “outliers.” The Paltrow and Flavin study cited here reports on 413 cases from 1973 to 2005 “in which a woman’s pregnancy was a necessary factor leading to attempted and actual deprivations of a woman’s physical liberty.” And their study also notes that Black and other women of color are especially targeted—at least three-fifths of the cases we describe above were women of color, and overall, 52 percent of the cases Paltrow and Flavin examined were Black women! Even more alarmingly, since 2005 (and up until 2014), there have been at least 380 more arrests or similar acts against women. Women arrested for falling down a flight of stairs, for attempting suicide, for delaying on having a cesarean, for drinking.9

This is a severe acceleration. And in the current climate this medieval persecution can be expected to get even worse—including through the wielding of the high-tech surveillance state in which everyone’s medical records are increasingly accessible to the state—even without further anti-woman rulings from the Supreme Court.

Over and over again, women are treated as mere incubators for the development of fetuses into children, viciously punished if anything goes wrong, and in many cases given less legal representation than the unborn fetus. These cases concentrate the actual position of women in U.S. society (and in the world) as less-than-human beings, increasingly criminalized and demonized, and with lives increasingly circumscribed. This escalating cruelty cries out for fierce resistance now, on both a state and national level, a determined refusal from men and women to allow the imposition of this Handmaid’s Tale nightmare on society. And even more it cries out for a revolution to overthrow these horrors and bring about a society in which women are respected and treated as full human beings, able to flourish in every dimension.

1. From Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973–2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health, by Lynne Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin, p. 306. [back]

2. “Forced and Coerced Cesarean Sections in the United States,” by Theresa Morris and Joan Robinson, SAGE Journals, June 16, 2017. [back]

3. Paltrow and Flavin, p. 306. [back]

4. Paltrow and Flavin, p. 306. [back]

5. Paltrow and Flavin, p. 307. [back]

6. “Indiana prosecuting Chinese woman for suicide attempt that killed her foetus,” Guardian, May 30, 2012. [back]

7. Purvi Patel is released after feticide conviction is overturned, Associated Press, September 1, 2016. [back]

8. “False Certainty,” by Leon Neyfakh,, February 5, 2015. [back]

9. “Pregnant and No Civil Rights,” by Lynn M. Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin, New York Times, November 7, 2014. [back]


Phoenix, Arizona, May 21, 2019. Women's signs say "War on Women." Photo: Twitter/@ShawnInArizona

Laura Pemberton speaking at National Summit to Ensure the Health and Humanity of Pregnant and Birthing Women, Atlanta, Georgia, 2007.

Regina McKnight at post conviction hearing, May, 2008

Purvi Patel

New York City, May 21, 2019
Photo: AP

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