A 24-year-old pregnant woman in Florida is seeking early release from jail, where she’s being held on murder charges, as she claims her now-8-month-old fetus “has not been charged with a criminal offense,” the Miami Herald first reported last week. The woman, Natalia Harrell, has been in the custody of the Miami-Dade jail system since last July, when she allegedly shot and killed a woman in an Uber during an argument after a night of partying. At the time, Harrell was six weeks pregnant.
Harrell’s lawyer, William M. Norris, made the argument that her fetus (and thus, Harrell) should be released from jail by putting forth a habeas corpus court filing on Thursday. Habeas corpus filings allege that someone is illegally detained, and in this filing, Norris specifically argues that Harrell’s fetus is being improperly jailed without any criminal charges. Throughout the filing, the fetus is referred to as “unborn child.” The Miami-Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department motioned to dismiss the filing, and in response, on Tuesday, Norris argued again that Harrell’s fetus is a separate person being improperly jailed without legal recourse.
Norris further claimed in the Thursday court filing, titled “Petitioner unborn child’s writ of habeas corpus petition,” that over the last several months, Harrell has been neglected by the jail system and denied necessary prenatal care. According to Norris, the jail has “failed or refused to take UNBORN CHILD to the attending outside OB-GYN physician at Jackson Hospital” in recent months, and the last time Harrell was taken to see a physician was in October. Harrell’s due date is unclear, because no doctor has checked on her in months, nor has the jail provided “the prescribed vitamins and nutritional drinks to UNBORN CHILD’s mother, Ms. Harrell,” the filing alleges.
In addition to this alleged mistreatment, Norris claims the “unborn child” is endangered by Harrell’s surroundings and the jail’s conditions. “Absent immediate release of UNBORN CHILD from the custody of Respondents [the Miami-Dade jail system], UNBORN CHILD will be likely brought into this world on the concrete floor of the prison cell, without the aid of qualified medical physicians and paramedics, and in the presence of violent criminals,” the filing states.
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In a statement to Law & Crime News, the Miami-Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department said it’s “conducting a full review of the health services offered and received to ensure that all pre-natal care being provided in our custody is appropriate.”
The filing on behalf of Harrell’s fetus comes at an increasingly perilous time for pregnant people, as anti-abortion activists and politicians have been emboldened to advocate for fetal personhood in the absence of Roe v. Wade. Fetal personhood confers legal citizenship upon fetuses and embryos, and—at the cost of pregnant people’s rights—treats fetuses and embryos as separate and independent from the pregnant person.
When an embryo is legally considered a “baby,” this “[normalizes] the idea that a pregnant person is not their own person anymore, that they’re subservient to the rights, individuality, and full personhood of a fetus,” Dana Sussman, acting executive director of Pregnancy Justice, told Jezebel last year. Long before Roe was overturned, pregnant people have been punished or criminalized for any actions that are perceived to harm the fetus. And post-Roe, there have been several reported cases of people with uteruses being denied medications that affect fertility because they’re of “childbearing age.”
In Harrell’s case, the personhood of her fetus is being argued as a means to help her as she faces alleged neglect—endangering herself and her fetus—while jailed. Pregnant incarcerated people are systematically mistreated and are twice as likely to suffer miscarriages as the general population.
The argument that imprisoning a pregnant person violates not their rights but the “due process” rights of their fetus isn’t new. But even as experts advocate for incarcerated pregnant people’s rights, they remain concerned about the implications of arguments that are rooted in fetal personhood. Like legislation proposed by anti-abortion lawmakers to allow pregnant people to drive in HOV lanes, these bills and arguments serve to legitimize embryos as people and consequently promote pregnant people merely as vessels for babies—an ultimately dangerous legal direction for pregnant people.