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Pregnant Black women beware; miscarriage in Ohio can lead to felony charges

A 33-year-old woman drawn into a firestorm over abortion, even though her lawyer says she miscarried
Photo credit: / wavebreakmedia

A 33-year-old Black woman in eastern Ohio suffered a miscarriage in her bathroom roughly halfway through a pregnancy she tried to keep secret. Now, she’s facing a year in prison and a $2,500 fine after being charged with fifth-degree felony abuse of a corpse.

Doctors had advised Brittany Watts in September that her baby likely would not survive and that she should need to have labor induced to deliver the nonviable fetus to avoid what they called “significant risk” of her death. But Mercy Health-St. Joseph Warren Hospital never performed the operation it said she needed.

Now, instead of being treated like a patient, Watts is being treated like a criminal — thrust squarely in the crosshairs of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which overturned the 1973 standard of Roe v. Wade.

“When I was arrested, I felt anger, scared, betrayed, confused, nervous,” Watts said in a text to Cleveland’s WJW-TV. “Every negative emotion you could conjure up in the English language, I felt it.”

Watts’ attorney, Traci Timko, said her client wasn’t trying to have an abortion on Sept. 22, when the miscarriage happened. Watts had visited the hospital in Warren, a small city about 63 miles southeast of Cleveland, three times during the week of the miscarriage, but wasn’t treated.

Health care providers have more incentive to deny treatment than to treat because they aren’t certain that they would avoid criminal liability, even if abortion is what’s medically necessary. Timko said it was because the hospital erred on the side of self-preservation. Abortions in Ohio are legal up to 22 weeks, and Watts was days past 21 weeks.

“It was the fear of, ‘Is this going to constitute an abortion and are we able to do that?’ ” she said.

When Watts showed up at the hospital the final time, she was no longer pregnant. The hospital then notified the police, the police went to her house, found the remains clogging up the toilet and a black bucket near the garage — both of which they then confiscated as evidence.

Michele Goodwin, an American legal scholar whose expertise is in the fields of bioethics and health law, said Watts’ case is another example of pregnancy being criminalized, particularly among Black and Brown women.

“You see this kind of muscle-flexing by district attorneys and prosecutors wanting to show that they are going to be vigilant, they’re going to take down women who violate the ethos coming out of the state’s legislature,” said Goodwin, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who authored the book, Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood.

Prosecutors, hoping to avoid being drawn into the abortion debate, have tried to narrowly focus on how Watts disposed of the fetus’ body rather than whether it was aborted. An autopsy proved the fetus died in the womb because there wasn’t enough amniotic fluid present for it to survive.

“The issue isn’t how the child died, [it’s] when the child died,” Warren Assistant Prosecutor Lewis Guarnieri said. “It’s the fact that the baby was put into a toilet, large enough to clog up the toilet, left in that toilet, and she went on her day.”

But that’s not how the Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights is interpreting it. What they see is a woman traumatized, then victimized and criminalized. Now, they hope to help her be humanized.

Lauren Beene, the physicians’ group’s executive director, urged the Trumbull County prosecutor, Dennis Watkins, to drop the charges against Watts. A GoFundMe page for her defense had raised more than $143,000 as of 1 p.m. EST on Dec. 19.

“It was wrong for the nurse who was caring for Ms. Watts and hospital administrators to call the police, wrong for the police to invade Ms. Watts’ home while she was fighting for her life in the hospital, wrong for Warren assistant prosecutor Lewis Guarnieri to move that she be bound over to the Trumbull County grand jury, and wrong for Judge (Terry) Ivanchak to grant his motion,” she wrote. “Prosecutor Watkins has the opportunity to be the first law enforcement official to do the right thing since this incident began.”

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