Rennie Gibbs is accused of murder, but the crime she is alleged to have committed does not sound like an ordinary killing. Yet she faces life in prison in Mississippi over the death of her unborn child.
Gibbs became pregnant aged 15, but lost the baby in December 2006 in a stillbirth when she was 36 weeks into the pregnancy. When prosecutors discovered that she had a cocaine habit – though there is no evidence that drug abuse had anything to do with the baby's death – they charged her with the "depraved-heart murder" of her child, which carries a mandatory life sentence.
Gibbs is the first woman in Mississippi to be charged with murder relating to the loss of her unborn baby. But her case is by no means isolated. Across the US more and more prosecutions are being brought that seek to turn pregnant women into criminals.
In Alabama prosecutors have come up with a new innovative way to apply a "chemical endangerment" law designed to protect children whose parents were cooking methamphetamine in the home and thus putting their children at risk from inhaling the fumes.
Amanda Kimbrough has been sentenced to 10 years in jail. While pregnant, her fetus was diagnosed as possibly having Down's Syndrome and she was advised to consider terminating the pregnancy. She chose not to, because she didn't believe in abortion. She gave birth prematurely via a cesarean section but the baby only survived 19 minutes.
Six months later Kimbrough was arrested at home and charged with "chemical endangerment" of her unborn child on the grounds that she had taken drugs during the pregnancy – a claim she has denied.
"That shocked me, it really did," Kimbrough said. "I had lost a child, that was enough."
She now awaits an appeal ruling from the higher courts in Alabama, which if she loses will see her begin a 10-year sentence behind bars. "I'm just living one day at a time, looking after my three other kids," she said. "They say I'm a criminal, how do I answer that? I'm a good mother."
In Amicus Briefs used used by Gibbs' defense lawyers advocates argue that such prosecutions will deter pregnant drug addicts to seek help for their addiction and may instead be motivated to seek to terminate the pregnancy themselves for fear of prosecution.
Ground zero for the assault on pregnant women who use drugs is South Carolina. From a paper presented by the NAPW (National Advocates for Pregnant Women). Click on 'download file' for the full report.
South Carolina’s former Attorney General, Charles Molony Condon, and frequent Republican candidate for statewide office, has made a career based on extremist positions. His most extreme position—edging out his advocacy of an electric sofa to expedite executions and his effort to keep the confederate flag flying above the state capitol—is his commitment to the prosecution and punishment of poor pregnant women. Although he has repeatedly claimed that this was a policy of “last resort” that “was not punitive…not designed to put people in jail,” but designed to promote treatment of pregnant women with drug problems, the record makes clear that punishment was and continues to be the first and only response for many South Carolina women seeking medical help for themselves and their children.
Needless to say the targets of Condon's policy are low income African American women. Although Condon has continually maintained that the program's goal was treatment not punishment the Supreme Court ruled that the policy violated the 4th Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure.
Condon and South Carolina has continued undaunted. Condon, without a trace of irony claimed that the program offers amnesty and treatment and the only way a pregnant drug addicted woman would land up in jail is if they refused both or literally "broke into jail."
The record tells another story.
Sandra Powell did not break into jail.
Sandra Powell, an African-American woman, was also arrested in 1989, at MUSC. Ms. Powell had been receiving prenatal care at MUSC without ever being offered drug treatment. She would later testify under oath that she would have accepted drug treatment had it been offered. In fact, Ms. Powell’s medical records indicate that while the hospital was aware of her cocaine use during her pregnancy there was no offer of treatment prior to—or on the day of—the delivery. Medical records do indicate, however, that on the day of the delivery, October 13th, the hospital staff would notify the police and coordinate her in hospital arrest at the time of her discharge. Ms. Powell was arrested just hours after giving birth, while she was still bleeding and in pain.
The 'war on drugs' has been an abject failure in so many ways. It's the main reason America sends more people per capita to prison than any other country in the world. exceeding such bastions of freedom as Myanmar, Iran and Libya.
This particularly cruel and vindictive assault on pregnant women takes the war on drugs and adds the fanaticism of the religious right which has led to well over 900 separate bills being tabled at both the state and federal level since the beginning of the year to either limit access to reproductive services, re-define personhood or punish women for neglecting their bodies while pregnant.
The additional shame is that this report had to come from a newspaper in England. It's a story that the American media have ignored because it just doesn't have the pizazz of the Casey Anthony story.