Reproductive rights advocates say a criminal case against a woman who attempted suicide while pregnant could have a chilling effect on women’s rights nationwide.
Bei Bei Shuai of Indianapolis was in her eighth month of pregnancy in December 2010 when she tried to end her life by ingesting rat poison. She ultimately survived, but her child died three days after an emergency delivery. That prompted the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office to charge Shuai with murder and attempted feticide in early 2011.
Speaking at a Butler Universty panel discussion about the case, Shuai’s defense lawyer Linda Pence said the consequences of the charges go far beyond Shuai’s life. She says the county is sending a message to women that they could be sent to prison for seeking help with depression or problems such as drug addiction, and the net effect will be fewer healthy pregnancies.
“You want to encourage pregnant women to seek treatment,” she says. You want to encourage pregnant women to talk openly to their doctors without fear of prosecution, and air these things. If you’re depressed and you try to commit suicide and you think you’ll be prosecuted, what are the chances you’ll talk to anyone?”
Indiana University law professor Jeannine Bell agrees the case could discourage women from reaching out to professionals. She says it is “disappointing” that Shuai’s doctors reported her to law enforcement, adding she believes the intent of Indiana’s feticide laws was never to prosecute pregnant women.
“That is quite clear from the discussion from when the laws and the changes to the laws were passed. There are no past prosecutions,” she says.
Bell says the laws are being used to chip away at reproductive freedom.
Indiana Right to Life and the Bloomington crisis pregnancy center, which oppose abortion, both declined to comment for this story. The conservative Indiana Family Institute did not answer requests for an interview.
The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement on the Butler panel that says that it was, quote, “not aware of the subject matter discussed,” but will continue to plead its case in court.
Shuai’s trial is scheduled for April 2013.