COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio was in crisis. Heated debate on abortion rights The fall occurred when Brittany Watts, who was 21 weeks and 5 days pregnant, started experiencing thick blood clots.
Watts, 33, who hadn't even shared the news of her pregnancy with her family, went for her first prenatal visit to a doctor's office behind Mercy Health-St. Joseph Hospital in Warren, a working-class town about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of Cleveland.
The doctor said that, while a fetal heartbeat was still present, Watts's water had broken prematurely and the fetus she was carrying would not survive. They advised her to go to the hospital to induce labor so that she could undergo an abortion to give birth to a non-viable fetus. Otherwise, according to his case records, he would face a "significant risk" of death.
It was a Tuesday in September. What followed was a painful three days: several trips to the hospital; Watts miscarried in the toilet at her home and then flushed it; police investigation of those actions; And Watts, who is Black, is being charged with abuse of a corpse. This is a fifth-degree felony punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
His case was sent to a grand jury last month. Following the U.S. Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision, it has sparked a national outcry over the treatment of pregnant women, and especially women of color. Roe vs. Wade overturned, civil rights lawyer benjamin crump Watts' plight was highlighted in a post on
Should those seeking abortion face criminal charges topic of debate Within the anti-abortion community, however, after Dobbs, pregnant women like Watts, who were not even trying to get an abortion, have found themselves accused of a "crime against their pregnancy," says assistant justice studies professor Grace Howard. said at San Jose State University.
He said, "At a time when women were legally allowed to terminate their pregnancies through abortion, Roe was a clear legal barrier to charging a felony for unintentionally harming a pregnancy." "Now that Roe is gone, that barrier is completely gone."
Michelle Goodwin, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and author of "Policing the Womb," said those efforts have long targeted black and brown women.
Even before Roe was overturned, studies showed that black women who went to hospitals for prenatal care were 10 times more likely to call child protective services and law enforcement than white women, she said. Even though their cases were similar.
Goodwin said, "After Dobbs, what we see is a kind of wild, wild west." “You want to see this kind of force being shown by district attorneys and prosecutors that they will be vigilant, that they will catch women who violate the ethos that comes out of the state legislature.” She called black women "canaries in the coal mine", because women of all races can expect a "highly vigilant type of policing" from the nation's network of health care providers, law enforcement, and courts, now that abortion is federally legal. Has not been protected by.
For example, in Texas, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton led an aggressive and successful defense against a white Texas mother, Kate Cox, Who sued to be allowed to avoid the state's restrictive abortion laws because the condition of her fetus was fatal.
At the time of Watts' abortion, abortion was legal in Ohio up to 21 weeks, six days of pregnancy. Watts left the hospital on Wednesday, when, coincidentally, the same date her pregnancy arrived - after sitting for eight hours waiting for care, her attorney Tracy Timko said.
It turned out the delay occurred because hospital officials were deliberating over legal issues, Timko said. "The fear was whether it would lead to abortion and whether we would be able to do that," he said.
At that time there was a vigorous campaign going on throughout Ohio Issue 1, A proposed amendment to the Ohio Constitution to enshrine the right to abortion. Some of the ads were harsh abortion later in pregnancy, Opponents argue that the issue would allow the return of so-called "partial-birth abortion" and "pregnancy termination until birth."
The hospital did not respond to calls seeking confirmation and comment, but B. Jesse Hill told Mercy Health-St. Joseph was in trouble.
"These are tremendous decisions that health care providers are being forced to make," he said. “And all the incentives are pushing hospitals to become conservative, because there is criminal liability on the other side of it. “It’s the Dobbs effect.”
Watts was admitted to Catholic Hospital twice that week due to vaginal bleeding, but she left without receiving treatment. A nurse told the 911 dispatcher that Watts was not pregnant that Friday. She said Watts told her, "The baby is in a bucket in her backyard," and that she did not want to have a baby.
Timko said that Watts insisted that she did not remember saying that the pregnancy was unwanted; It was unintentional, but she always wanted to give her mother a grandson. Her lawyer believes Watts may have meant she didn't want to fish out what she knew was a dead fetus from the bucket of blood, tissue and feces she flushed down her clogged toilet. Was taken out from.
"This 33-year-old girl with no criminal record has been demonized for something that happens every day," she told Warren Municipal Court Judge Terry Ivanchak during Watts' recent preliminary hearing.
Warren's assistant prosecutor, Lewis Guarnieri, told Ivanchak that Watts left the house for a hair appointment after the abortion, causing the toilet to clog. Later the police found a fetus stuck in the pipe.
"The issue is not how the child died, it's when," Guarneri told the judge, according to TV station WKBN. "The fact is that the child was put in the toilet, she was large enough to cause a blockage in the toilet, she was left in the same toilet and went about her day."
In court, Timko bristles at Guarneri's suggestion.
"You can't broadcast it clearly that you don't understand it," he said in an interview, suggesting that Watts was frightened, anxious and traumatized by the experience. “She's trying to protect mom. She doesn't want to get her hair done. She wants to stop bleeding like crazy and start giving her fetus the grief she just went through.”
As lead counsel for the county's Child Assault Protection Unit, Assistant Trumbull County Prosecutor Dianne Barber is the lead prosecutor on the Watts case.
Barber said she couldn't talk specifically about the case, other than to say the county was forced to move forward with it after being bound over from municipal court. He said he does not expect a grand jury decision this month.
"About 20% of the cases go no-bill, (ie) they're not charged and the case doesn't proceed," he said.
The size and stage of development of Watts' fetus – the exact point when abortion went from legal to illegal in most cases – became an issue during her preliminary hearing.
A county forensic investigator reported feeling "a small foot with claws" inside Watts' toilet. Police confiscated the toilet and dismantled it to retrieve the intact fetus as evidence.
Testimony and an autopsy confirmed that the fetus died in utero before passing through the birth canal. Regarding abuse, testing revealed "no recent injuries."
Ivanchak acknowledged the complexities of the case.
"There are better scholars than me to determine the exact legal status of this fetus, corpse, body, natal tissue, whatever," he told the bench. "Actually, I'm assuming that... point 1 is all about: at what point does something become viable."
Timko, a former prosecutor, said Ohio's body abuse statute is vague. It prohibits treating a "human corpse" in a manner that would "offend" reasonable family or community sensibilities.
"From a legal perspective, there is no definition of 'corpse,'" she said. "Can you become a corpse if you never breathed?"
Howard said it's important to have clarity about whether Watts' behavior is a crime.
"For the rights of people with the ability to conceive, this is huge," he said. “Her miscarriage was completely normal. So I just want to know what (the prosecutor) thinks he should have done. If we were to require people to collect used menstrual products and bring them to hospitals so they can make sure it is indeed an abortion, that would be as ridiculous and offensive as it is cruel.
This story corrects that the case was referred to a grand jury last month, not last week.