Ohio U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Referencing the recent case of an Ohio woman who faced charges after her miscarriage, Ohio Democratic U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty joined with other congressional Democrats to urge the Biden administration to push further against “pregnancy criminalization.”
The Democratic Women’s Caucus, led by its White House liaison, Beatty, sent a letter last week to President Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Bacerra, asking that federal leaders “provide all legal and medical support available within your respective authorities to prevent the criminalization of pregnancies and pregnancy outcomes.”
“One alarming example of this was the case of Brittany Watts, an Ohio woman who was unjustly charged with a crime related to her miscarriage,” the letter stated. “While a grand jury refused to move the case forward, irreparable harm has already been done and we must ensure this never happens to anyone again.”
Watts’ case received local and national coverage, including coverage of the outrage after she was charged with abuse of a corpse in Trumbull County. She was charged after prosecutors said she improperly disposed of the remains of her miscarriage, despite the fact that she’d sought medical treatment for the unviable pregnancy.
The Democratic Caucus said in their letter to the Biden administration that Watts’ experience “is all too common for Black women, who disproportionately experience adverse pregnancy outcomes due to inadequate health care, and disproportionately experience disrespect, abuse and punitive responses when they seek pregnancy-related care.”
On a press call about the letter, Beatty said it was important for her and her colleagues to “continue to make sure that we don’t continue to have Brittany stories.”
“It’s not an Ohio issue, it’s an issue that goes across the wonderful America that we live in,” Beatty said.
Beatty was joined by fellow U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez of New Mexico, who said she has experienced miscarriage and life-threatening pregnancy complications, and said what happened to Watts was “a direct result of the Dobbs decision,” which overturned Roe v. Wade and abortion legalization nationwide.
She said the landscape and politicization of reproductive health in America has also led to pregnancy decisions sometimes being in the hands of the justice system, not the health system.
“Women need help, not handcuffs,” Leger Fernandez said.
Two decades of study
The legal reproductive rights advocacy group If/When/How released a report in 2023 analyzed court records and media reporting from 2000 to 2020 “in which someone was criminally investigated or arrested for allegedly self-managing their own abortion or helping someone else do so.”
“Some of the reasons for self-managing that emerged included affordability of self-managed care versus clinical care; the belief that someone was too far along in their pregnancy for clinical care in their state; the inaccessibility of clinical care due to abortion policy restrictions in the individual’s home state; the distance to a clinic; and the pregnant person’s experience with interpersonal violence or trauma,” the study stated.
The group found 61 people who were criminally investigated or arrested on allegations related to their pregnancy, but the research is “likely still an undercount,” they said.
“Case data requested was not received from all jurisdictions and offices,” the study stated, and not all court cases are reported by media.
Ohio was one of the 26 states in which a case was found — a 2002 case in which the study said a woman attempted to terminate her pregnancy through “self injury,” but didn’t cause harm to the fetus. The case was eventually dismissed, but the study used the case as an example of dismissals as “a recognized win” but one where “the process to get to that point still subjects people to harmful criminal system consequences.”
“Decades of stigma and legal restrictions on abortion have fueled an aura of illegality that now surrounds self-managed abortion and seeking abortion in general, turning it into something seen as suspicious or deserving of punitive state action,” researchers stated in the study.
One of the authors of the study, If/When/How senior counsel and legal director Farah Diaz-Tello, was with Beatty and Leger Fernandez during their press call, saying it is becoming “increasingly dangerous to be pregnant in the United States.”
“What happened (in the Watts case) was that what was essentially a health care matter was turned into a criminal justice matter,” Diaz-Tello said.
The congressional Democrats want to see federal agencies investigate “any prosecutions of people with pregnancy-related conditions as unlawful under federal statutes that prohibit discrimination by law enforcement on the basis of sex, including on the basis of pregnancy.”
They also want to see stronger oversight on violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and enforcement of an anti-discrimination provision in the Affordable Care Act that bars federally-funded health care entities “whose personnel improperly report to law enforcement when patients miscarry, terminate a pregnancy or seek other pregnancy-related care,” according to the Democrat letter.
Beatty said the fact that voters strongly passed the abortion rights constitutional amendment in November and staunchly rebuffed attempts by Republican leadership to change the approval percentage for constitutional changes in an August vote shows Ohioans “have beat the odds,” and are looking for change, despite gerrymandered voting districts that lean Republican.
“Ohio is on the upswing because of the people in this community, in this state,” Beatty said. “They are tired of getting their rights taken away.”
She said she and her federal counterparts have been working with the state legislature, but the primary way to change is still increasing voter turnout and education.
“People have to do one of two things, in my opinion,” she said. “They have to be excited or they have to get mad.”