Woman and Fetus: Property of the State

The current climate in the some parts of the United States would make one think that being a woman making reproductive choices is a crime punishable by state. Wrapped up in the current anti-abortion rhetoric, women are suffering and being punished for crimes that the US usually portrays as inhumane and more prevalent in countries such as Iran.

Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese woman living in Indiana, was pregnant with a child. She planned to marry her boyfriend until she learned that he was already married and would abandon her. In a highly agitated, anxious, and depressed state she tried to kill herself by ingesting poison rat poison pellets; she survived but her baby died. My instant reaction was that the mix of hormones during her pregnancy, the loss of her boyfriend, and the contemplation of her future was so emotionally unbearable, that she had a mental breakdown. I thought I would read that she had been taken into a psychiatric or mental health care center so that she could receive support for her mental health and to help her recover. Instead, I read that she was recently arrested and charged with murder and attempted foeticide. She is being held in jail and on trial facing life imprisonment.

The case raises some important issues about how individual US states view women. Lawmakers and regulators in some states clearly view the need to police and regulate many aspects of a woman’s physical body. These views also completely ignore the evidence and advice produced by health professionals and scientists around women's health issues. Morality and an ever growing body of Christian extremism are increasingly taking precedent of the mental and physical health of a woman.

In the case of Bei Bei Shuai, she has been put in jail for putting her unborn babies life in danger. Alexa Kolbi Molinas, a lawyer from the ACLU, eloquently explained the ramifications of this case. "If we allowed the state to put a woman in jail for anything that could pose a risk to her pregnancy, there would be nothing to stop the police putting in jail a woman who has a drink of wine or who smokes. So where do you draw the line?"

The life of a fetus and abortion remain controversial topics on both sides of the argument. The focus, however, has veered away from understanding how and why things happen and what we can do to prevent them to an issue about right and wrong based solely on morality and punishment. In the UK, I worked for a Perinatal Mental Health Service directed by Dr. Marguerite Reid. Women and their health practitioners inundated the service, demonstrating that there was a real need for mental health support around matters of pregnancy while simultaneously showing there is a dire lack of these services available. Dr. Reid’s patients frequently exclaimed how the service had changed their lives by learning coping and behavioral skills and by using medication, if necessary. The work of the Perinatal Service allowed women that had been affected by a range of pre- and post pregnancy related problems to function and be more cognizant in their day-to-day lives. This is in contrast to a moral judgment that would have left these women at the mercy of a judgment and probably a punishment that would further debilitate them.

What is happening to Bei Bei Shuai is horrific and the ripple effects of her case on legislators in other states is worrying. While mainstream media and the American public is quick to offer judgment on the practices of other cultures, in this case it is vital to access the ramifications of Bei Bei Shuai's case on women’s health in the USA and how media coverage of this case will be handled globally.