Brittany Watts’ Nurse Reported Her Miscarriage to Cops. Now Congress Wants Biden to Do Something
"Irreparable harm has already been done and we must ensure this never happens to anyone again," a new letter signed by 150+ Congress members states.
Last month, an Ohio jury decided not to charge Brittany Watts with a felony abuse of a corpse charge for having a miscarriage at 22 weeks. Her case has since sparked national outrage over how a hospital regarded a Black woman as criminally suspicious because she asked for an emergency abortion for her nonviable pregnancy, which prosecutors then misused to charge her with a felony for miscarrying.
On Thursday, over 150 members of Congress signed a letter addressed to President Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, calling on the administration to take actionable steps to stop people from being policed and criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes—and to stop health care workers from reporting pregnant women to the police. This comes after Watts recently shared that her nurse called the police on her, and said Watts “didn’t want the baby” as evidence of supposed wrongdoing.
The letter to Biden begins by pointing to “the longstanding pattern of criminalization of people on the basis of their pregnancies and pregnancy outcomes that has intensified in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.” (Side note: It’s refreshing to see politicians acknowledge that pregnancy-related criminalization has always happened, and abortion bans have only served to shroud all pregnancies in greater suspicion.) “Brittany Watts, like thousands of other people across the country each year, miscarried at her home. When she sought follow-up care at a hospital, the hospital staff reported her to the police,” the letter continues. “Her 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.”
The Congress members, who include Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL), chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), emphasize that while Watts ultimately wasn’t charged, “irreparable harm has already been done and we must ensure this never happens to anyone again.” They’ve called on Biden and Becerra to “use your authority” to “provide direct public educational, financial, and legal services support to any person who experiences or is threatened with pregnancy criminalization” and “interrupt that criminalization before it occurs and remedy its aftermath.” The letter asks the administration to investigate “any prosecutions of people with pregnancy-related conditions as unlawful under federal statutes that prohibit discrimination.”
Speaking to reporters on a press call on Friday, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-NM) called Watts’ experience “heartbreaking” and shared her own story: “I myself have suffered miscarriage. I myself almost died during pregnancy. … And to think, when you go for help, instead of getting help, you’re getting handcuffed—we need help, not handcuffs.”
In 2023, Biden’s HHS Department submitted a proposed rule change that would prevent patients’ medical information from being used to investigate, sue, or prosecute patients and providers for seeking reproductive care. A rule like this could potentially protect someone from experiencing what Watts did—but, as Congress members’ letter points out, public education will also play an indispensable role in preventing the criminalization of pregnancy, as too many health care workers currently seem to think it’s their job to report pregnant people to the cops.
Last week, Watts told CBS that days before she miscarried, she learned her pregnancy wasn’t viable and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. After the hospital made her wait over eight hours, she left, then returned the next day seeking an emergency abortion at 21 weeks and five days into her pregnancy because she was worried about her health. Instead of helping her, the hospital referred her to its internal ethics committee because staff members were concerned with her use of the word “abortion.” (Abortion is legal in Ohio until 22 weeks—after that, it’s banned except to save the life of the pregnant person.) Watts was denied an abortion but returned two days later after miscarrying—she told CBS her nurse told her “everything’s going to be OK” to her face, only to then call the police on her.
According to CBS, audio of the call shows the nurse telling the 911 dispatcher that Watts “didn’t want to look” at her fetal remains and claimed Watts “didn’t want the baby.” Watts denied this to CBS: “I said I did not want to look. I have never said I didn’t want my baby. I would have never said something like that,” she said. Shortly after Watts was reported, police arrived at her house, recovered the fetal remains, and arrested her, charging her with felony abuse of a corpse despite how a forensic pathologist testified that her fetus was not born alive and had not been viable. Watts faced up to one year in prison, a fine of up to $2,500, and a felony on her record.
Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), the Democratic Women’s Caucus’ White House liaison, told NPR on Thursday that she was especially concerned that Watts had been reported by a nurse—especially a nurse who postured as an advocate for Watts. “You don’t get to pick up the phone, violate a person’s HIPAA rights, and then say to this person, ‘I’m consoling you with one hand and calling the police to have a person arrested on the other hand,’” Beatty said.
Medical privacy and being reported by health care workers is just one dimension of the chaos that Watts was subjected to. Dana Sussman, deputy executive director of Pregnancy Justice, previously told Jezebel about 97% of criminal charges for pregnancy outcomes she’s tracked have been for “murder, manslaughter, feticide, child endangerment, abuse of a corpse.” None of these charges, she said, are even meant to criminalize pregnancy outcomes or self-managed abortion. Prosecutors sometimes just throw anything they can at the wall to see what will stick. Sussman also said that many pregnancy-related criminal charges stem from “suspicion or a question about whether someone intentionally sought to end their pregnancy,” just as the hospital internally flagged Watts. Criminal charges can then be rendered to “punish someone for possibly engaging in this behavior”—because “you don’t need an abortion ban to criminalize pregnancy.”