A woman charged with murder for giving birth to a stillborn child after taking methamphetamine had those charges dropped by a California judge on Thursday.
The judge, Robert Burns, dismissed the case on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the woman, 26-year-old Chelsea Becker, had taken the drugs with the intention of terminating the pregnancy. The ruling, however—while a victory for Becker—did not preclude the possibility that another pregnant person might find themselves in her exact position in the future. According to the New York Times, Becker’s lawyers interpreted the decision as leaving “open the possibility that other women in similar situations could face murder charges.”
The ruling also did not come soon enough to prevent Becker, who was arrested in 2019, from spending more than a year in jail on a $2 million bond (only later reduced from $5 million).
“Chelsea is incredibly relieved that this nightmare for her is over,” Dan Arshack, one of Becker’s attorneys, told the Los Angeles Times. “ ... Sadly, however, the possibility of other women in California being charged with murder associated with having a stillbirth is still a distinct possibility and perhaps in Kings County even a likelihood.”
It isn’t the first time there have been legal repercussions for women suspected of doing harm to fetuses—or blamed for harm done to them. The same year Becker was arrested, Marshae Jones, who lives in Alabama, was charged with manslaughter after she was injured in a shooting, resulting in the death of the fetus she was carrying. Hundreds of other women in the state have been prosecuted for the “chemical endangerment” of their fetus, a 2006 law targeting women who used methamphetamines.
The charges in these cases are often dropped—a judge dismissed Jones’s manslaughter charge just a few days after her arrest (though not before she had to post a $50,000 bond)—but not always. Adora Perez, another California woman, remains incarcerated after being charged with murder in 2018 for delivering a stillborn. No matter the outcome, they represent a terrifying glimpse into a future without Roe v. Wade, where people who miscarry, suffer stillbirths, or suffer harm themselves will have to fear being suspected of seeking an abortion.
Of course, this also describes our present: As of 2019, there were seven states with laws on the books expressly criminalizing self-induced abortions; 10 criminalizing fetal harm; and 14 with old criminal abortion laws still in place that, while largely defunct, “have been and could be misapplied to people who self-induce,” according to reproductive rights legal advocacy group If/When/How.
In one of the most extreme cases, a woman named Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years in prison, after being convicted of feticide and felony child neglect for inducing her own abortion. She remained in jail for roughly a year and a half before being released in 2016.
Burns’s decision in Becker’s case “gives us a clue as to the kind of things that could happen if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade, or further limit it with statements regarding state interests or rights for fetuses,” said Lynn Paltrow, head of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.