Jury Decides Not to Prosecute Black Woman in Ohio for Having a Miscarriage

Brittany Watts’ case “shows us, depending on your identity, the state treats some losses as tragedies and other losses as crimes," an attorney said.

Jury Decides Not to Prosecute Black Woman in Ohio for Having a Miscarriage
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A grand jury in Trumbull County, Ohio, has decided not to charge Brittany Watts with a felony abuse of a corpse charge for having a miscarriage 22 weeks into her pregnancy, county prosecutors announced on Thursday. The decision comes after Watts’ case sparked national outrage that a Black woman was being criminalized for a common pregnancy experience like miscarriage, particularly in the aftermath of the fall of Roe v. Wade.

In a statement shared with Jezebel, Yveka Pierre, senior litigation counsel at If/When How, called the decision from the jury a “relief” that ends “the wrongful and dehumanizing case against Brittany Watts.” But Pierre, who worked with Watts’ legal team on her case, still remains frustrated that Watts’ life was turned upside down by this felony charge in the first place: “This decision does not erase the harm that Brittany had experienced as the result of this case. Brittany should have been able to focus on taking care of herself after her pregnancy loss,” she said. “She should have been able to process, and grieve with her family and community. Instead, she was arrested and charged with a felony.”

“From the start of this case, I have argued that the charge was not supported by Ohio law and that Brittany was being demonized for something that takes place in the privacy of women’s homes regularly,” Watts’ attorney, Traci Timko, said in a statement. “No matter how shocking or disturbing it may sound when presented in a public forum, it is simply the devastating reality of miscarriage.”

Watts allegedly miscarried in late September, while using the restroom, and then flushed the fetal remains down her toilet. A nurse called the police on her when she came to the hospital bleeding and said she was no longer pregnant, and that her fetus was in a bucket in the backyard. (Relatedly, the majority of people who are investigated by police for self-managing abortions are reported by healthcare workers.) Police recovered the fetal remains wedged in the pipes of Watts’ home and arrested her.

Watts was charged with a felony, even though a forensic pathologist testified in November that her fetus was not born alive and had not been viable. Despite this testimony, prosecutors said, “The issue isn’t how the child died, when the child died, it’s the fact that the baby was put into a toilet, large enough to clog up a toilet, left in that toilet and she went on [with] her day.” They were, of course, referring to literal miscarried fetal remains as a “baby” and “child.” Warren Municipal Court Judge Terry Ivanchak ruled to move forward with the case against Watts, shrugging off the matter of “the exact legal status of this fetus/corpse/body/birthing tissue/whatever it is.”

Legal experts and advocates immediately raised alarms about the implications of the case, which builds on a long history of pregnancy-related criminal charges that predate the overturning of Roe. Watts’ case comes at a time when abortion bans mean pregnancies will inevitably face greater policing. In December, If/When/How attorney Farah Diaz-Tello told Jezebel that Watts’ case “has everything and nothing to do with [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health].” After all, the felony charge against her, and the charges other women have faced for miscarriage and stillbirth before her, aren’t from an abortion ban. At the same time, the overturning of Roe contributes to “the prosecutorial atmosphere, the stigma and scrutiny” that can bring people to the attention of the criminal legal system for pregnancy-related decisions and experiences.

Dana Sussman, deputy executive director of Pregnancy Justice, told Jezebel last month that the charge against Watts represented a textbook “misapplication” of the law because “abuse of a corpse” charges don’t apply to miscarriage or pregnancy. As many as a quarter of pregnancies end in miscarriage and “there is no handbook, no guide as to what one is supposed to do when they experience pregnancy loss,” Sussman said. Pregnancy Justice’s latest report published in September showed almost 1,400 cases of criminal charges related to pregnancy and birth between 2006 and the summer of 2022 when Roe fell. Pregnancy Justice has tracked several cases involving women facing criminal charges for how they disposed of fetal remains from miscarriage or stillbirth.

Pierre’s statement also emphasized that Watts’ case “shows us, depending on your identity, the state treats some losses as tragedies and other losses as crimes.” She concluded, “The criminalization of pregnancy loss is not based on what the law requires, but is instead the result of the racism and classism baked into the criminal legal system—an institution that seeks to dehumanize marginalized people at every turn.”

“We thank the public for the outpouring of love and support Brittany received. To the countless women who reached out to share their own devastating stories of pregnancy loss—Brittany read every one of them and felt a sisterhood to each of you,” Timko said. “The emails, letters, calls, donations and prayers- they all played a part in empowering and getting her through each day. It is our hope and intention to make sure that Brittany’s story is an impetus to change.”

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