Are pregnant women bound by stricter laws than everyone else? That’s the question at the core of a high-profile case in Indiana, where 36-year-old Bei Bei Shuai is charged with murder for allegedly consuming rat poison while pregnant. The AP reports that the Chinese immigrant ate rat poison when she was eight months pregnant. She went into labor and gave birth to a baby girl on December 31, 2010. After two days, the baby, named Angel, died from bleeding of the brain. Shuai was charged with murder and feticide in March, 2011.
Shuai’s lawyers say she ate the rat poison in an attempt to commit suicide. A note she wrote before eating the poison suggests that she intended to kill herself and her baby. Because only the baby died and Shuai did not, she was charged in the death of the child under Indiana’s feticide laws. But Shuai’s lawyers say that the feticide law apply to people who attack pregnant women, resulting in the death of their unborn baby, not the pregnant women themselves. When the law was enacted in 1979, it was meant to be used to prosecute abusive boyfriends whose violent acts cause a miscarriage. Shuai’s case is the first of it’s kind in Indiana–she is the first woman in the state to be charged with murder for attempting suicide while pregnant. Other states with similar laws have charged women who delivered stillborn babies while addicted to drugs with feticide. Women’s rights groups worry that such laws could lead to the prosecution of women who have miscarriages. Indiana prosecutor Terry Curry says he’s simply following the law as it stands: ”It’s my job to enforce the criminal code as enacted by our legislature and that’s what our legislature has determined.”
Prosecutors initially offered a plea deal, which Shuai rejected. Under the deal, she would plead guilty to feticide and serve up to 20 years in prison, while the murder charge would be dropped.
In an attempt to prevent public sympathy for Shuai from swaying jurors, prosecutors last week requested that Judge Sheila Carlisle prohibit defense attorneys from asking witnesses questions that could elicit juror sympathy for Shuai, or any questions about the witnesses’ religious beliefs. Shuai’s attorney, Linda Pierce, responded to the motion: ”You can’t ask a court or ask a lawyer to word their questions to avoid sympathy. That’s something the jury determines, not the lawyers.”
As prosecutors attempt to keep sympathy out of the courtroom, Shuai’s case has garnered public attention online. A petition to have the state drop charges against her has gathered 11,000 signatures.