Ohio Woman Faces ‘Abuse of a Corpse’ Charge for Miscarriage in Another Post-Roe Nightmare

“There’s no guide for what one’s supposed to do when they experience pregnancy loss," a legal expert told Jezebel.

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Ohio Woman Faces ‘Abuse of a Corpse’ Charge for Miscarriage in Another Post-Roe Nightmare
Brittany Watts at her hearing on November 2nd. Screenshot:WKBN

Brittany Watts, a Black woman in Ohio, is facing felony charges for “abuse of a corpse” after miscarrying 22 weeks into her pregnancy in September—and her case is now heading to trial. Watts, 33, is specifically accused of miscarrying her pregnancy while using the restroom and then flushing the fetal remains down her toilet. The remains were uncovered by local law enforcement on Sept. 22, per the Warren Police Department.

Watts faces this felony charge even as a forensic pathologist testified last month that her fetus was not born alive and died before passing through the birth canal; further, he said the fetus ​​was “nonviable because [Watts] had premature ruptured membranes—her water had broken early—and the fetus was too young to be delivered.” Watts’ defense attorney, Tracy Timko, told local media last month that her client “learned days before” her miscarriage that this outcome “was inevitable and that the fetus could not survive outside the womb due to gestational age.”

Warren assistant prosecutor Lewis Guarnieri has previously responded to Timko and the forensic pathologist by arguing that “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.” There is a lot to unpack here, foremost that fetal remains from a miscarriage are not a “child” or “baby,” and this language is both inaccurate and dangerous. Nonetheless, Warren Municipal Court Judge Terry Ivanchak decided to move the case forward, shrugging off the matter of “the exact legal status of this fetus/corpse/body/birthing tissue/whatever it is,” as he so dismissively put it.

In a statement shared with Jezebel this week, Timko accused law enforcement of “demonizing” her client “for a common experience that many women share.” She continued, “Brittany suffered a tragic and dangerous miscarriage that jeopardized her own life. Rather than focusing on healing physically and emotionally, she was arrested and charged with a felony and is fighting for her freedom and her reputation.” State law, Timko said, “does not support criminalizing someone for a pregnancy loss.”

Farah Diaz-Tello, senior counsel and legal director of If/When/How, told Jezebel that a case like Watts’ is “shocking but not unexpected,” as If/When/How’s research shows “prosecutors are looking for ways to punish people when the law doesn’t really allow it” as applied to pregnancy. Watts’ case is also inseparable from her identity as a Black woman: “We have a young Black woman who’s being punished for something that happens to people across the country all the time,” Diaz-Tello said. “It’s no coincidence, the scrutiny and judgment that’s been placed on her for something that in other circumstances would be considered a tragedy. Yet when we’re talking about a Black woman, we’re treating it like it’s a crime.”

Dana Sussman, deputy executive director of Pregnancy Justice, told Jezebel that the felony charge against Watts represents a textbook “misapplication” of the law, as “abuse of a corpse” charges don’t apply to miscarriage or pregnancy. As many as a quarter of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and Sussman points out that “there is no handbook, no guide as to what one is supposed to do when they experience pregnancy loss.”

To Sussman, Watts’ case shows that “you don’t need an abortion ban to criminalize pregnancy.” Per her tracking, about 97% of criminal charges for pregnancy outcomes have been for “murder, manslaughter, feticide, child endangerment, abuse of a corpse” rather than abortion laws. Still, hostility to abortion is inextricably linked with the policing of pregnancy. Many of the cases Sussman has tracked involve “suspicion or a question about whether someone intentionally sought to end their pregnancy,” with criminal charges doled out to “punish someone for possibly engaging in this behavior.” Earlier this year a teenager in Nebraska was sentenced to 90 days in jail for a self-managed abortion to escape an abusive relationship prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Last year, a report from If/When/How revealed that between 2000 and 2020, there were at least 61 cases of people who self-managed their abortions or helped someone self-manage an abortion that “came to the attention of law enforcement.”

Sussman also notes that it’s common for people who miscarry to flush fetal remains like Watts did. And when people who experience miscarriage or stillbirth dispose of fetal remains through other means, such as burying the remains or bringing them to the hospital, Pregnancy Justice has tracked cases where these individuals still face criminal charges. In 2017, a teenager in Ohio was charged with aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, child endangering, and gross abuse of a corpse after burying a stillborn fetus in her backyard. In 2018, a Wisconsin woman faced similar charges for disposing of stillborn twins, and the following year, a Virginia woman was convicted and briefly jailed for “concealing a dead body” after disposing of remains from a stillbirth.

Criminal charges stemming from pregnancy loss predate the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. Per Pregnancy Justice’s latest report, published in September, reported close to 2,000 such cases between 1973 (when Roe was decided) and the summer of 2022 when Roe fell. In July, Pregnancy Justice executive director Lourdes Rivera told Jezebel the organization is “busier than ever post-[Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health],” and had already tracked dozens of cases of pregnancy-related criminalization in 14 states in 2023. Like Watts’ experience, very few of these cases have directly involved abortion laws, Sussman says. But all of these criminal cases contribute to “creating a specter of suspicion and criminal framework around pregnancy,” as well as “a culture of fear and confusion that’s very intentional.”

As Diaz-Tello sees it, Watts’ case “has everything and nothing to do with [Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health].” The felony charge against Watts, and the charges other women have faced for miscarriage and stillbirth before her, don’t stem from an abortion ban. At the same time, the overturning of Roe contributes to “the prosecutorial atmosphere, the stigma and scrutiny” that put people in the crosshairs of the criminal legal system for pregnancy-related decisions and experiences.

Timko told Jezebel that Watts and her family have seen and appreciate “the outpouring of public support,” as many social media users have “publicly shared their own stories of pregnancy loss in response to her case” over the last several weeks. She called the charge against Watts a “travesty” that they “will continue to fight.”

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