An American woman has been charged with a crime following her miscarriage.
COLUMBUS, Ohio —
During the autumn season, Ohio was embroiled in a contentious discussion regarding the rights surrounding abortion. At this same time, Brittany Watts, who was 21 weeks and 5 days into her pregnancy, experienced the passing of large blood clots.
The 33-year-old Watts, who had not shared the news of her pregnancy even with her family, made her first prenatal visit to a doctor’s office behind Mercy Health-St. Joseph’s Hospital in Warren, a working-class city about 100 kilometers southeast of Cleveland.
The physician stated that even though the fetus still had a heartbeat, Watts’ water had ruptured prematurely and the unborn baby would not survive. It was recommended for her to go to the hospital to have labor induced, essentially ending the pregnancy and delivering the nonviable fetus. If she did not do this, there was a high chance of mortality, as documented in her medical records.
It was a Tuesday in September when the events that followed were quite distressing. These events included numerous visits to the hospital, Watts experiencing a miscarriage in her home’s toilet and then disposing of it, and a police inquiry into her actions. As a Black woman, Watts was charged with abusing a deceased body, which is considered a fifth-degree felony with a potential sentence of one year in prison and a fine of $2,500.
Last month, her situation was referred to a grand jury which sparked a nationwide controversy regarding the way pregnant women, particularly Black women, are treated following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that reversed Roe v. Wade.
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump elevated Watts’ plight in a post to X, formerly Twitter.
Michele Goodwin, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of the book “Policing The Womb,” stated that this case is consistent with a trend of pregnant women being prosecuted unjustly. She noted that these actions have historically been disproportionately aimed at women of color.
Prior to the reversal of Roe, research indicates that Black women seeking prenatal care at hospitals were 10 times more likely than white women to have child protective services and law enforcement contacted, even if their situations were comparable, according to her statement.
After the Dobbs case, Goodwin described the current situation as a chaotic and unregulated environment. District attorneys and prosecutors are aggressively asserting their power to demonstrate their commitment to enforcing laws set by the state’s legislature, particularly when it comes to punishing women who go against these beliefs.
She referred to Black women as “canaries in the coal mine,” suggesting that they are the first to experience the heightened surveillance and scrutiny from healthcare providers, law enforcement, and the legal system due to the loss of federal protection for abortion rights.
At the moment of Watts’ pregnancy loss, abortion was permissible in Ohio up until 21 weeks and six days of gestation. Her attorney, Traci Timko, stated that Watts spent eight hours at Mercy Health-St. Joseph’s Hospital waiting for medical attention as her pregnancy approached 22 weeks, but ultimately left without receiving treatment.
Timko stated that the hospital administrators had been carefully considering the legal implications.
Timko expressed concern about whether the action would be considered an abortion and if it was within their capabilities. The hospital did not respond to requests for confirmation or comment.
However, according to legal scholar B. Jessie Hill from Case Western Reserve University School of Law, the hospital was facing a dilemma.
“The choices being made by healthcare providers are extremely difficult,” she stated. “The incentives are encouraging hospitals to err on the side of caution, as the consequence of not doing so could result in criminal charges.”
At the preliminary hearing for Watts, Warren Assistant Prosecutor Lewis Guarnieri informed Judge Terry Ivanchak of Warren Municipal Court that she went to a hair appointment after miscarrying and left behind a clogged toilet. The police later discovered the fetus lodged in the plumbing.
According to television station WKBN, Guarnieri told the judge that the focus should not be on the timing or cause of the child’s death, but rather on the disturbing details that the baby was placed in a toilet, causing it to become clogged, and was then left there while the mother continued with her daily activities.
During the court proceedings, Timko became noticeably agitated.
She stated that this 33-year-old woman, who has no prior criminal history, is being vilified for something that happens regularly.
During the preliminary hearing, the size and development stage of Watts’ fetus were brought into question.
During the period, there was a strong push for Issue 1, which was a successful measure to add an amendment to guarantee the right to abortion in Ohio’s constitution. The campaign included advertisements that claimed the amendment would permit abortions “up until the moment of birth.”
A county forensic investigator stated that they felt something resembling a small foot with toes in Watts’ toilet. The police took possession of the toilet and dismantled it in order to retrieve the complete fetus as evidence. An examination confirmed that the fetus had died in the womb before being delivered and showed no signs of recent injuries.
The judge recognized the intricacies of the case when he transferred it to the grand jury for further review.
He stated from the judge’s seat that there are more qualified scholars to determine the precise legal standing of this fetus, corpse, body, birthing tissue, or whatever it may be.
Assistant Trumbull County Prosecutor Diane Barber, lead prosecutor on Watts’ case, could not speak specifically about the case, other than to note the county is compelled to move forward with it. She doesn’t expect a grand jury finding this month.
According to Timko, a former prosecutor, the law regarding abuse of a corpse in Ohio is ambiguous.
According to her, there is no legal definition of a “corpse.” Can someone be considered a corpse if they never breathed?
According to Grace Howard, a professor of justice studies at San José State University, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of which aspects of Watts’ actions can be considered criminal.
She stated that her miscarriage was completely typical, so she is curious about the prosecutor’s opinion on what she should have done. If we are going to mandate individuals to gather and transport used menstrual products to hospitals in order to confirm a miscarriage, it is both absurd and intrusive, not to mention unkind.