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On 'personhood,' Rand Paul, and Bei Bei Shuai

Bei Bei Shuai's 2011 police photo.
Bei Bei Shuai's 2011 police photo.AP Photo/Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, File

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) this week has held up the re-authorization of the National Flood Insurance Program, which insures 5.6 million flood-prone homes. He says he wants a vote on legislation that declares life begins at conception.  What does this have to do with Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant in Indiana who stands accused of murdering her daughter and attempted feticide?

Both events indicate the growing legal trend of states' increasingly delineating rights to the fetus, separate from the mother bearing it. 33 weeks into her pregnancy, Shuai's boyfriend announced he planned to leave her and their unborn child. Shuai, devastated, swallowed rat poison in an effort to take her own life, but her dose was not lethal and she drove to a friend's house who then rushed her to the hospital for treatment.

A week later, she gave birth to her daughter Angel through emergency C-section, but complications ensued and her daughter died three days later. Shuai then spent a month in the hospital's psychiatric unit recuperating. Soon after, the state of Indiana charged her with the counts she now faces, which could send her away to prison for life.

Senator Paul's amendment, the Life at Conception Act, would "ensure equal protection for right to life of each born and preborn human person." Paul introduced the amendment on Monday, but the act originally surfaced in January, 2011. The Act "declares that the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution is vested in each human being beginning at the moment of fertilization, cloning, or other moment at which an individual comes into being. Prohibits construing this Act to require the prosecution of any woman for the death of her unborn child."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has vowed to block Paul's amendment to the re-authorization bill, which would immediately overturn Roe. v. Wade. Bei Bei Shuai's case, which has led to hundreds of people signing a petition calling for Indiana to drop the charges, depicts the precarious legal and social situations pregnant women increasingly find themselves in -- suicide is the fifth leading cause of death among pregnant women.

If Shuai is convicted, her case sets a dangerous legal precedent concerning the behavior of expectant mothers. Slate's Libby Copeland sums it up well:

This is such a difficult case. You can sympathize with Shuai and her apparent mental illness while also being deeply disturbed by what she did. But her prosecution by Marion County prosecutor Terry Curry, a Democrat, seems entirely inappropriate, and speaks to the increasingly common notion of pregnant women as mere vessels for baby-making... Shuai’s story is yet another test case for a culture that too often frames the needs of mothers as at odds with those of their offspring.

At least 38 states have fetal homicide laws, including Indiana. At least 23 of these apply to the earliest stages of pregnancy, including "conception." Alabama has a "chemical endangerment" law under which at least 60 women have been arrested for doing drugs while pregnant. In Iowa, the state charged a pregnant woman with attempted feticide after she fell down a flight of stairs, initial police reports alleged she intentionally threw herself down them, but she denies any such intent. The charges were eventually dropped. (RH Reality Check hosted a call with the mother, Christine Taylor, about the Shuai case; you can read the transcript here.)

These examples illustrate the increasing trend of criminalizing behavior of expectant mothers who do endanger, consciously or not, their unborn child. While state legislatures initially passed these laws in an effort to protect pregnant women -- recognizing an additional crime when the life of the fetus was terminated in assaults or violent crimes -- the judicial practice has turned these laws more towards protecting the actual fetus than using them as additional protections for women.