Recent events have shed increasing light on the disturbing trend of incarceration of women following a miscarriage or stillborn birth. The women profiled in news articles have been poor, often of color, sometimes drug addicts, struggling with mental health issues or domestic abuse. If not physical abuse, the women may be grappling with a relationship landmine such as the widely reported case of 34 year old Bei Bei Shuai who tried to commit suicide by taking rat poison after discovering late in her pregnancy that the baby’s father who had committed to marry her was already married and planned to abandon her. While Ms. Shuai survived, the baby died. Shuai was charged with murder and incarcerated where she continues to struggle with depression. Denied bail, she may be in jail while her case works its way through the legal system.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which is handling Shuai’s case, states that these charges are not only cruel to Ms. Shuai but “would make every pregnant woman in Indiana criminally liable for the outcome of her pregnancy.” Yet these types of criminal charges for miscarriages, stillbirths and the like (Ms. Shuai’s baby died four days after delivery by c-section), are cropping up in various states (e.g., IN, GA, SC). These prosecutions run counter to medical and public health knowledge about the best ways to address health problems, suicide attempts and drug addiction that pregnant women experience.
Enter Michele Bachmann stage right. Stylish, white and wealthy, announcement of her miscarriage was expected to elicit sympathy from the millions of American women who have silently suffered miscarriages. The Washington Post makes it clear that the paper does not mean “to suggest that Republican presidential candidate Bachmann’s decision to talk about her miscarriage was in any way a political…gambit.” However, it doesn’t take a political scientist to argue that no candidate for office would announce anything so personal without a political calculation.
I expect the reaction to Bachmann’s announcement will be a lot of sympathy for this mother of five children and 23 foster children. She deserves this sympathy. Miscarriage is the cause of personal grief that has largely gone unacknowledged in American society. Often only after a woman suffers such a loss and quietly confides in a couple of close friends does she begin to appreciate how widespread it is. The American Pregnancy Association’s website indicates that more than 600,000 women each year experience pregnancy loss through miscarriage or stillbirth.
So I greet Bachmann’s personal share with a mixed reaction: on the one hand she is shedding light on a secret women have harbored –in some cases at high emotional cost—for years. Perhaps a public airing can prove cathartic for many women in the American way of psychotherapy through public discourse. Oprah may be gone from the 4 pm time slot but now we have Michele Bachmann.
On the other hand, Bachmann’s zero tolerance stance against abortion puts her in cahoots with those who would incarcerate women for a bodily function. During a recent debate, Bachmann described herself as “100 percent pro-life.”
It is the stretching– the gross overreaching–of the antiabortion agenda that has gotten us to this surreal place where women can be imprisoned for a miscarriage. So while candidate Bachmann is garnering sympathy while attempting to reel in women voters on the strength of her miscarriage story, other women are languishing in jail for their losses.
If the personal is political, it seems it would extend that women’s own experiences with miscarriage would lead to sympathy for those facing similar losses. Perhaps I’m waiting for the uprising of women who’ve had miscarriages without legal interference, to defend their less fortunate sisters. At least I hope that candidate Bachmann will use her bully pulpit to express not only sadness about her miscarriage but outrage over the imprisonment of women who have lost their pregnancies as well.
There’s a miscarriage of justice that needs to be righted.