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Murder charge against woman over stillborn baby is condemned by California attorney general

Our laws "do not convict women who suffer the loss of their pregnancy," the California AG said in denouncing charges against a woman whose stillborn baby had toxic levels of methamphetamine.
Image: Xavier Becerra
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks during a press conference at the California State Capitol on March 7, 2018 in Sacramento, Calif.Stephen Lam / Getty Images file

California's attorney general has thrown his support behind overturning a murder charge against a woman who delivered a stillborn baby with toxic levels of methamphetamine in his system.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed an amicus brief Friday backing a bid by Chelsea Becker to end the prosecution of her over a stillbirth in September 2019. Becker, 26, has been jailed since November.

"Our laws in California do not convict women who suffer the loss of their pregnancy, and in our filing today we are making clear that this law has been misused to the detriment of women, children, and families," Becerra said in a statement, contending that the local district attorney "misapplied and misinterpreted" a state law against the intentional killing of a fetus.

"We will work to end the prosecution and imprisonment of Ms. Becker so we can focus on applying this law to those who put the lives of pregnant women in danger," the attorney general said.

Becker has been in the Kings County Jail in Hanford, about 30 miles south of Fresno, since her arrest in November, with bail set at $2 million.

Police said in a press release that she admitted to using methamphetamine three days prior to the stillbirth, and that an autopsy on the stillborn baby determined it had toxic levels of methamphetamine in his system. Becker had previously lost custody of multiple children due to drug use, police said.

Kings County District Attorney Keith L. Fagundes said that Becerra and his staff did not reach out to him before filing the amicus brief, though he has looked it over since it was filed Friday. He called Becerra's action "politically motivated" and said it "strays from his sworn duty to uphold the law as it is written rather than as any political party wishes it was written."

"The plain language in this statute, as defined with any English dictionary, supports the conclusion that a pregnant person is not exempt from criminal liability for doing an unlawful and deadly act to her own late-term viable fetus," said Fagundes, who added that he believed the attorney general was attempting to turn this into a reproductive rights case.

"If the plain meaning of the statute was as clear as petitioner and the AG claim it is, it would not be necessary to line up political advocacy groups to pressure parties into commandeering the justice process," he told NBC News.

Becerra in the amicus brief argues that the state law against the murder of a fetus does not apply to women whose actions result in pregnancy loss.

Two doctors who wrote a letter to the courts in support of Becker said her arrest "seems to assume that pregnant women can guarantee healthy birth outcomes and therefore may be held criminally responsible if they do not."

Drs. Mishka Terplan and Tricia Wright, who said they have expertise in obstetrics, gynecology and substance abuse, wrote in the January letter "We are gravely concerned that medical misinformation may be the reason she [Becker] is currently in jail, including the unsupported assumption that substance use disorders should be treated as dangerous."