grieving mother
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Oklahoma Woman of Color Prisoned for Role in Her Baby’s Miscarriage

A growing number of women, especially women of color, are being sentenced to prison for the miscarriage deaths of their babies.

Priscilla Thompson and Alexandra Turcios Cruz of NBC News reported that “when Brittney Poolaw [who is Native American] was in an Oklahoma hospital last year having a miscarriage, she admitted to using methamphetamine during her pregnancy. Now, Poolaw, who was 19 at the time of her miscarriage, is in prison, sentenced to four years in October [2021] for manslaughter in the death of her fetus.” 

According to Thompson and Turcios Cruz, “some advocates and medical professionals believe the verdict is a mistake, warning that the rising trend of women being prosecuted for actions during pregnancy is often based on faulty science and disproportionately affects low-income women and women of color.”

In an interview with NBC News, Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), defended Poolaw and said the charge is likely a result of inherent racism in the courts.

“No one could say that anything she did or didn’t do was the cause of that miscarriage,” Paltrow said. “Yet the prosecutor proceeded, and the judge allowed the case to go on, and the jury — within a very few number of hours — convicted her.”

Poolaw isn’t alone in being charged with a miscarriage involving her unborn child. After abortion was legalized in 1973 through Roe v. Wade, the NAPW has estimated more than 1,600 women were imprisoned for behaviors during pregnancy that supposedly led to miscarriages or stillbirth. Sadly, the majority of those cases also involve women of color or those with low income. 

In 2013, researchers at NAPW and Fordham University reviewed 413 arrests and forced interventions involving pregnant women between 1973 and 2005. They found that 71% of cases involved women with low incomes, and 59% involved women of color, with 52% of those women identifying as Black. Of those cases, Black women were also much more often charged with a felony.

“This whole idea that it’s even appropriate or thinkable to use the criminal law to respond to pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes was built on the backs of pregnant Black women who were portrayed during the height of the ‘crack baby’ myth as if they were uncaring, unloving parents,” Paltrow said.

The racist attacks on women suffering these unfortunate losses only appear to be growing. In 2019, researchers found that between 2000 to 2015, the number of states that had enacted new laws criminalizing drug use during pregnancy had more than doubled across the country, rising from 12 to 25.

The American Medical Association has condemned the trend, saying that lawmakers should instead be “focusing on increasing access to evidence-based care rather than using punishment and the threat of family separation” in cases involving pregnant women with substance-abuse issues.

As for the case of Poolaw, NBC News reported that while an autopsy of her fetus did test positive for methamphetamine and amphetamine, physicians also found it had a congenital abnormality, which may have left it unviable for continued development and birth.

“There is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime she committed, possession of methamphetamine, caused the death of the fetus,” former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance told NBC News in an interview. She also added that cases like Poolaw’s could set a dangerous precedent in the courts in the future.

“A man hits a vehicle with a woman who’s pregnant in it, and she miscarries the fetus as a result of the car accident,” Vance theorized. “Do you charge him with murder?”

 

Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here.

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