She was charged with a crime after a miscarriage: Her case highlights the dangers of becoming pregnant after the end of Roe v. Wade

The state of Ohio was mired in a bitter debate over abortion rights this fall when Brittany Watts, who was 21 weeks and 5 days pregnant, began passing large blood clots.

Watts, 33, who had not shared the news of her pregnancy even with her family, made her first visit to a doctor’s office located behind Mercy Health-St. Joseph’s Hospital in Warren, a working-class city about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of Cleveland.

The doctor said that although the fetus still had a heartbeat, Watts’ water had broken prematurely and I wasn’t going to survive. She advised her to go to the hospital to have labor induced and perform what would amount to an abortion to remove the fetus. Otherwise, she would face a “significant risk” of death, according to his case records.

Protesters rally for reproductive rights in front of the White House in Washington, during the Women’s March, on January 22, 2023. Associated Press

It was a Tuesday in September: what followed were three harrowing days that included several trips to the hospital. Watts’ abortion ended up being spontaneous and occurred in the bathroom of her home, and ended with a police investigation of her actions: she was accused of mistreating the fetus, a crime punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. .

Her case, which was referred last month to a grand jury, has sparked a national firestorm over the treatment of pregnant women, and especially black women like Watts, following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which ended the Roe v. Wade, who decriminalized abortion at the federal level. Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump laid out Watts’ plight in a post on social media site

The question of whether women who seek abortions should face criminal charges is debated within the anti-abortion community, but in the wake of the Dobbs case, pregnant women like Watts—who was not even attempting an abortion—are They are more frequently accused of “crimes against their pregnancy,” said Grace Howard, associate professor of Justice Studies at San Jose State University.

“Roe was a clear legal obstacle to felony charges for unintentionally terminating pregnancies, at a time when women were legally allowed to end their pregnancies through abortion,” he said. “Now that Roe is gone, that hurdle is completely gone.”

An environment of “hypervigilance”

Michele Goodwin, professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Policing The Womb (Monitoring the uterus), said those efforts have long been overwhelmingly directed toward black and brown women.

Even before Roe was overturned, studies showed that black women who went to hospitals for prenatal care, were 10 times more likely White women were encouraged to turn to child protection services and law enforcement, even when their cases were similar, he said.

“After the Dobbs case, what we see is a bit of a Wild West,” Goodwin said. “We see this kind of muscle flexing by district attorneys and prosecutors in general who want to show that they are going to be vigilant, that they are going to take down women who violate the principles set by the state legislature.” He called black women “canaries in a coal mine” in an environment of “hypervigilance” on women of all races in national health networks, and by law enforcement and the courts, now that Abortion is not protected at the federal level.

In Texas, for example, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton mounted an aggressive and successful defense against a white Texan mother, Kate Cox, who sued to obtain permission to circumvent the state’s restrictive abortion law because her fetus suffered from a fatal disease.

At the time of Watts’ abortion, the procedure was legal in Ohio up to 21 weeks and six days of pregnancy. Her attorney, Traci Timko, said Watts left the hospital on Wednesday, her pregnancy, after sitting for eight hours waiting to be treated.

It turned out that the delay was because hospital officials were deliberating on the legal aspectsTimko explained. “The fear was whether that was going to constitute an abortion and whether we could do it,” he explained.

At the time, an intense campaign was underway across Ohio on Issue 1, a proposed amendment to enshrine abortion rights in the Ohio Constitution. Some of the ads harshly attacked abortions in late stages of pregnancy. Opponents argued that so-called “partial birth abortions” and terminations of pregnancy “up to birth” would be allowed to return.

The hospital did not return calls seeking confirmation and comment, but B. Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, said Mercy Health-St. was in trouble.

“These are decisions, akin to walking a knife’s edge, that healthcare providers are forced to make,” he said. And all the signs push hospitals to be conservative, because on the other side is criminal liability. That’s the impact of Dobbs.”

Watts had been admitted to the Catholic hospital twice that week with vaginal bleeding, but left without treatment. A nurse told the 911 dispatcher that when Watts returned on Friday she was no longer pregnant. She claimed that Watts told her, “The baby is in my yard in a bucket” and that she did not want to have a child.

Timko said Watts insists he doesn’t remember saying the pregnancy was unwanted; It was involuntary, but he had always wanted to give his mother a grandchild. His attorney believes Watts may have meant that he did not want to remove what he knew was a dead fetus from the bucket of blood, tissue and feces he had collected from his overflowing toilet.

“This 33-year-old girl with no criminal record is being demonized for something that happens every day,” she told Warren Municipal Court Judge Terry Ivanchak during the recent preliminary hearing in Watts’ case.

Warren Deputy District Attorney Lewis Guarnieri explained to Ivanchak that Watts left home for a hair salon appointment after her abortion, and left the toilet clogged. Police later found the fetus wedged in the pipes.

“The issue is not how the child died, nor when he died,” Guarnieri told the judge, according to television station WKBN. “The fact is that the baby who was put in a toilet was big enough to clog it, was left there, and she went on (with) her day.”

Timko bristled at Guarnieri’s suggestion.

“It couldn’t be clearer that she doesn’t understand (what happened),” she said in an interview, suggesting that Watts was scared, anxious and traumatized by the experience. “She doesn’t want them to fix her hair. She wants to stop bleeding like crazy and start crying for her fetus, for what she just went through.”

As chief attorney of the county’s child protection unit, Trumbull County Deputy District Attorney Diane Barber is also the lead prosecutor in the Watts case.

Barber said he could not speak specifically about the case, other than to note that the county was forced to move forward with the case once it reached municipal court. He said he did not expect a grand jury decision this month.

“About 20% of the cases are not charged, that is, there are no accusations and they do not move forward,” he explained.

The size and development of Watts’ fetus – precisely the moment when abortion goes from legal to illegal in most cases – became an issue during the preliminary hearing.

(These pilots transport women who need an abortion to states where it is allowed)

A county coroner’s investigator reported feeling “what appeared to be a small foot with toes” inside Watts’ toilet. Police seized the toilet and dismantled it to recover the intact fetus as evidence.

The testimony and the autopsy confirmed that the fetus had died in utero before traveling through the birth canal. Regarding the mistreatment of her remains, the examination did not identify “injuries that were recent.”

Ivanchak acknowledged the complexity of the case.

“There are academics better than me at determining the exact legal status of this fetus, corpse, body, birth tissue, whatever,” he said from the dock. “In fact, I guess that’s the number one question: at what point does something become viable (from a life perspective).”

Timko, a former prosecutor, said Ohio’s statute on abuse of a corpse is vague. It prohibits treating “a human corpse” in a way that “outrages” reasonable family or community sensitivities.

“From a legal perspective, there is no definition of ‘corpse’‘” he stated. “Can you be a corpse if it has never breathed?”

Howard said it is essential to clarify what aspects of Watts’ behavior constituted crimes.

“For the rights of people who are able to get pregnant, this is huge,” he said. “Her abortion was totally ordinary. So I just want to know what he (the prosecutor) thinks he should have done. “If we are going to require people to pick up and bring used menstrual products to hospitals so they can make sure it is indeed a miscarriage, that would be as ridiculous and invasive as it is cruel.”