On Bei Bei Shuai

by Shaker Angeline

[Content Note: Self-harm; reproductive coercion.]

In 2010, at eight months pregnant, Bei Bei Shuai attempted to commit suicide but survived after friends persuaded her to seek medical attention. Doctors initially believed that both Bei Bei and the fetus would survive, and Bei Bei gave birth via Caesarean section. However, the baby was subsequently taken off life support after she was found to have a massive brain haemorrhage. Distraught, Shuai spent the following month recovering and grieving in a psychiatric ward. Shortly afterwards, the prosecutor, Terry Curry, charged Bei Bei with murder and attempted foeticide under an Indiana law designed to protect women from violent partners intent on causing a miscarriage. If convicted, Bei Bei could face between 45 and 65 years in jail.

I've been reading Shakesville for years. I've largely been silent—I've read nearly every post, but could count the number of comments I've left on one hand. I've chosen to write this guest post because Bei Bei Shuai's case truly exemplifies the need for a multifaceted understanding of social justice.

This story highlights the many ways that oppression along various axes interact and reinforce each other.

I don't believe it's a coincidence that the prosecution chose to take up this case against a Chinese migrant who had previously been hospitalised for mental illness or that the prosecutor has been particularly aggressive in attempting to intimidate and silence Shuai and her lawyers. I imagine Curry thought that she would be an easy target and easy to intimidate. I like to think that he's found himself shocked by the amount of coverage the case has received and the support given to Bei Bei. I'm proud to be one more person lending the strength of my voice to hers and thank Melissa for lending me the space to do so.

Curry himself noted that Bei Bei would have benefited from access to mental health services before her suicide attempt. I can think of no better way to ensure that people with mental illnesses do not seek care than instilling fear that they will be penalised with jail for their behaviour. Of course this is putting aside the complete lack of compassion that would lead Curry to acknowledge that what Bei Bei needed was health care and decide to file a spurious murder case against her instead.

Many of the articles that have been written about this case highlight the danger that this opens the way for pregnant women to be charged with crimes for any behaviour that might harm the fetus, but fewer acknowledge the extent to which this is already happening. While this is the first time the law in Indiana has been used against a woman due to a suicide attempt, it's far from the first time a woman has been charged with murder after the fetus she was carrying died.

A recently released report (pdf) details the growing trend in the US of women being denied basic human rights due to being pregnant. Unsurprisingly, the study found that women of color and poor women were most likely to be affected. The report states:
Lack of documentation also makes it difficult to evaluate what the likely implications of such things as personhood measures are and whether they pose threats beyond recriminalizing abortion. A need remains, then, to document the cases, identify which women have been targeted, and determine the legal and public health implications of these arrests, detentions, and forced interventions. We report on more than four hundred such cases that have taken place in forty-four states, the District of Columbia, and federal jurisdictions from 1973 to 2005.
The report also acknowledges that these statistics likely underestimate the true impacts of these laws by a substantial amount.

Bei Bei's case is ongoing and she will go to trial in April 2013. Her conviction would extend the criminalisation of pregnancy that much further. If you'd like to read more about the case as it progresses or donate to the Bei Bei Shuai Defense Fund, you can do so here.

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