HANFORD, Calif. (ChurchMilitant.com) - Legal and ideological clashes are continuing after a California woman was charged with murder of her unborn child after she took methamphetamines late in her pregnancy.
Chelsea Becker, 26, was charged by Kings County prosecutors last September with the murder of her unborn child. Since then, her case has captured the attention of civil rights groups and abortion advocates, with many activists afraid that charging Becker with killing her child could set a precedent for criminalizing abortion.
California's attorney general, Xavier Becerra, weighed in on the case Aug. 7.
Becerra wrote an amicus brief in support of Becker's petition, arguing the Superior Court's interpretation of state law could "subject all women who suffer a pregnancy loss to the threat of criminal investigation and possible prosecution for murder."
Becerra argued criminal proceedings against Becker should be dropped.
"Our laws in California do not convict women who suffer the loss of their pregnancy, and in our filing today we are making clear that this law has been misused to the detriment of women, children and families," he said in his statement.
Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told BuzzFeed News that the prosecution in Becker's case is based on a similar argument pro-life advocates use, that fetuses "should be protected as if they are already a separate person."
"There is no role for the criminal law system in response to pregnant women, pregnancy and the outcome of their pregnancies," Paltrow claimed. "All these prosecutions do is deter women from getting care and from speaking honestly about their health problems."
Amnesty International in a 2017 report claimed that while "fetal assault" laws are intended to prevent harm to the fetus, they can backfire, making people less likely to seek prenatal care. Further, as Vox.com argued, fetal assault laws could make illegal do-it-yourself home abortions — a practice that is gaining popularity.
Phil Esbenshade, the executive assistant district attorney for Kings County, played down the abortion question by focusing on the state's penal code on criminal liability.
"This is not a case about abortion nor women's reproductive rights," Esbenshade said. "This is a case about a person who did specific acts that resulted in the death of a viable fetus."
The state of California allows for abortion of all preborn children too immature to survive outside their mother's womb. This viability age is generally accepted to be 23 weeks gestation. Esbenshade's preborn child was eight and a half months mature at the time of death. A child deemed viable can only be aborted, according to California law, if the procedure is necessary to protect the mother's life or health.
Since her arrest in November, Becker is now in jail with a bail set at $2 million. Her lawyers are taking the case to California's 5th District Court of Appeal.
An autopsy on the fetus was conducted in November by the Kings County Coroner's Office, and the death was determined a homicide due to the levels of methamphetamine in the fetus' system.
The Hanford Police Department also stated that Becker "further admitted to law enforcement she used methamphetamine while she was most recently pregnant as late as three days prior to giving birth to the stillborn fetus."
Lawyers for Becker, while not denying this, argued that the claim it was methamphetamine that killed the baby lacked scientific basis.
"There is a commonly held misconception that any amount of substance use, including methamphetamine, is uniquely and fatally dangerous to a pregnant woman and her baby," they wrote. "That is simply not true."
According to a local news outlet, Becker's aunt, Julie Lance, who has custody of two of her children, thinks her niece should face consequences for her actions.
"If they drop these charges and let her out of jail, she's just going to do this again," Lance said. "She needs mental health care, she needs drug rehabilitation — and she needs jail time." She said her niece's three other children were also born with meth in their system.
Michele Goodwin, law professor at UC Irvine and author of the forthcoming book Policing the Womb, said women prosecuted for drug-related deaths of their preborn children usually live in poor, unstable environments.
"What makes these prosecutions so deeply problematic is that coinciding with these women's poverty and also their drug use and addiction happen to be the situations in which they live," she said.
Becker's case is not the first time a woman has been charged with murder or manslaughter of her unborn child in the United States.
In 2007, Mississippi teenager Rennie Gibbs was indicted for "depraved-heart murder" of her stillborn child. The state medical examiner found traces of cocaine in the preborn child's blood and declared the death a homicide. The charges were dismissed in 2014.
In 2011, Indiana prosecutors charged a woman with attempted feticide and murder after her 3-day-old baby died following a cesarean-section delivery. The woman, Bei Bei Shuai, attempted suicide days before the baby's stillbirth. Shuai reached a plea deal in 2013 in which she pleaded guilty to criminal recklessness.
Last year, an Alabama woman was charged with manslaughter after another woman shot her in the stomach. She survived but her 5-month-old preborn child did not. She was charged because police claimed she started the fight. It was dropped a week later.
In California, in a case similar to Becker's, another woman from Kings County was charged with murder in 2018. Adora Perez, after a stillbirth following methamphetamine use, was prosecuted by the same DA as Becker. She pleaded guilty on the lesser charge of manslaughter and is serving an 11-year sentence.
Pro-life advocates recognize the inconsistency in the laws on the books regarding the protection of fetal life. An unborn child is often legally protected from harm by a third party or by the mother herself, but when an abortionist kills a child for money it's done with impunity.
Ultimately Becker's case will be decided by the Court's interpretation of California's penal code section 187, which defines murder as "the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought." The debate, however, about a woman's responsibility for the health and life of her unborn child, will continue.