She was just 15 years old. Not necessarily the honor student or homecoming queen, but nonetheless by societal standards still a child. And while most young girls her age are consumed with passing their first drivers test, Rennie Gibbs gave birth to her first child, Samiya, who was stillborn. Now, seven years after the death of her daughter, Gibbs is facing a possible life sentence for depraved heart murder, even though her daughter never took a breath.
So how does this story of misfortune equate to a potential sentence of life in prison? Though an autopsy revealed that Samiya most likely passed away as a result of an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck during labor, it also showed trace amounts of cocaine in her system. As a result of the positive toxicity report, Gibbs was indicted by a grand jury for “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” causing the death of Samiya. If convicted, Gibbs will be the first woman in the state of Mississippi to be charged for a loss of pregnancy and may spend the rest of her life behind bars.
According to Pro Publica, Gibbs’ case is among a trend of ‘fetal harm’ cases that have been occurring since the 1980’s. Examples include: An Indiana woman who while pregnant attempted suicide and spent a year in jail before murder charges were dropped; a woman in Iowa was arrested and jailed after falling down the stairs and suffering a miscarriage; a New Jersey woman refused to sign a preauthorization for a cesarean section, and while didn’t end up needing the operation, was charged with child endangerment and lost custody of her baby. The vast majority of cases disproportionately involve poor, young, lower income mothers that use illegal drugs while pregnant. And while the majority of these cases are an outgrowth of fetal homicide laws intended to protect pregnant women and their unborn children from violent attacks by third parties, National Advocates for Pregnant Women has found only one case of a man who assaulted a pregnant woman having been charged under these statutes. However, to date it is estimated “there have been up to 300 women arrested for their actions during pregnancy.”
These cases attempt to strike a balance between the rights of the mother and the rights of the unborn child as determined by law makers, health care workers, and others. And yet, there is a since of irony in the Gibbs’ situation. Mississippi ranks as the lowest state in terms of maternal and infant health- with rates comparable to Botswana and Sri Lanka. Most of these issues are attributed to a lack of resources: poor nutrition, poverty, and low education levels. Mississippi also has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, STDs, and the among the most restrictive abortion policies. And despite these frightening numbers, it seems like the state has been slow to remedy the situation.
The prosecutors for Gibbs case argue that the state has a responsibility to protect children from the dangerous actions of their parents. However, others fear that this case creates a “slippery slope” for young women whose babies are dying as a result of lack of resources, education, or other factors. Other advocates like Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU, argue that arrests for fetal harm “violates constitutional guarantees of liberty, privacy, equality, due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.”
These cases are difficult. They intersects several issues of person hood, pro choice, pro life, and privacy policies.
How do we prevent the unfortunate and often unintended deaths of children while still protecting the rights of the mother?