avatarAllison Wiltz

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HEALTH

Why Black Women Can't Even Have a Miscarriage in Peace in This Country

In heartbreaking case of Britanny Watts, prosecutors cast blame

AI-generated Photo of a Black woman as the sun sets | Photo created by the author using CANVA

When Roe v. Wade, the legal precedent that established women's reproductive rights for fifty years, came crashing down, Black women knew they would be the group most impacted by the Supreme Court's decision. Already, Black women were three times as likely as White women to die during childbirth, and this is true regardless of their income and level of education. This disparity, which experts say is the byproduct of racism in the healthcare system, makes pregnancy exceedingly dangerous for Black women. Depriving them of reproductive rights only compounded the issue because not only are Black women more likely to die of complications related to childbirth, but now that choice is less likely to be in their hands.

Black women warned when the precedent fell that the sky was falling, but not enough people in positions of power took heed. Now that many of these new state laws are in effect, Black women are not only at a higher risk of maternal mortality but can be held criminally liable if something goes wrong during their pregnancy. At this point, women are not being treated as human beings but as incubators who have a legal obligation to carry a pregnancy to term, despite the risks to the mother or the viability of the fetus. Last year, after a trigger law went into effect in Louisiana, a Black woman, Nancy Davis, was “forced to carry fetus missing skull to term or travel to Florida for abortion.” This is cruel and unusual punishment, but it’s happening right here in America.

The heartbreaking case of Brittany Watts

A prosecutor charged a 33-year-old Black woman, Brittany Watts, with one felony count, "abuse of a corpse," in Warren, Ohio, after having a miscarriage at home last week. The government is sending an awful message by charging Watts with a crime, that miscarriages are the fault of the expectant mother and will be perceived as an intentional effort to terminate a pregnancy. Approximately one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage during the first trimester, and this is typically not something that a woman has control over. And once you realize that Black women have a 43% increased risk of miscarriage compared to White women, you realize that these laws are more than sexist, as many feminists have claimed, but also racist when we consider who is most likely impacted by these laws.

In the case of Brittany Watts, a forensic pathologist testified, saying they found "no injury to the fetus — the unborn fetus had died" prior to passing through the birth canal and noted that she went to the hospital twice before the miscarriage occurred. Technically, when a pregnancy is lost after twenty weeks, as in this case, this is referred to as "stillbirth," although any loss of pregnancy is called a miscarriage. Many miscarriages happen at home, and as the autopsy revealed, there was no evidence that Watts harmed her unborn child. Yet prosecutors have charged this woman with a felony, potentially stripping her of her voting rights and punishing her criminally for something that her body naturally did. Having a miscarriage can be heartbreaking for any woman expecting a baby, and charging them with a crime only compounds the trauma.

Perhaps the effort to hold a Black woman criminally liable for having a miscarriage is rooted in ignorance because the men writing and enforcing these laws do not know much about female anatomy or understand that having a miscarriage is a common experience. However, intent be damned. The impact is cruelty. Often, women do not share news about their pregnancy until after the First Trimester, just in case it ends in miscarriage. Now that the Supreme Court has left it up to states to decide what reproductive rights women have access to, a miscarriage is no longer a private affair but a public one scrutinized by prosecutors. And I can't help but see that as cruel and unusual punishment. Why should anyone, other than a woman's close friends, family, and health care providers, know about a miscarriage she had or even an abortion she sought?

Do Black women have Fourth Amendment protections? Because according to the Constitution, citizens have "the right to be secure in their persons." Does the government's effort to control women's bodies make them feel secure in their persons? Absolutely not. So, we're faced with a conundrum in this country, where women are technically citizens but deprived of some of the same civil rights guaranteed to men. This schism cannot stand. What women desperately need is federal legislation that codifies women's reproductive rights, a "hands off our bodies" approach to governance that safeguards women's right to "be secure in their persons." Because what we've seen is that in the absence of those guardrails, states regularly disregard women's rights.

Like many expectant mothers who miscarry, Brittany Watts was sent home by healthcare providers and not provided with instructions on what to do next. And yet, when the state got involved, they blamed Watts for having a miscarriage despite this being out of her control and for her disposal of the remains of her stillborn baby. As emergency room doctor Ryan Marino, MD said, "Not only are they victimizing someone who has already been traumatized by loss of a wanted pregnancy, this woman had even been sent home from the hospital TWICE to complete her miscarriage at home, knowing the fetus had already ceased to have a heartbeat or any chance at survival." The bottom line is Watts is someone who went to the hospital to get help and was sent home to deal with the miscarriage on her own. Now, prosecutors are assigning her the blame.

Black women tried to warn America that the sky was falling and that in the absence of precedent or legislation to protect women's rights, women would be punished and scandalized for their natural bodily functions. And while some listened, it's evident that those in power have failed to develop safeguards. As it stands, it's dangerous for Black women to get pregnant in this country, to carry a baby to term, or even lose a baby. Perhaps the true tragedy is that Black women are not being protected at any part of their reproductive healthcare journey. And some people are trying to make it worse instead of better. For instance, just last month, conservatives fought to ban a program designed to help Black and Pacific Islander expectant mothers on the premise that this program was discriminatory. So, even when the community steps up and tries to fill the gap to ensure Black women receive the quality of healthcare they deserve, there's always some group of aggrieved White people blockading progress.

The case of Brittany Watts is a reminder that the Supreme Court's decisions and laws passed have real-world consequences. Black women can't even have a miscarriage in peace in this country. Stripping women of their reproductive rights wasn't some pie-in-the-sky idea that can't touch us down on Earth. These state-level laws are enforceable, and prosecutors are disproportionately using these laws to target Black women and punish them in a misogynistic effort to control their bodies. While these laws impact all women, we can't ignore the fact that Black women are more likely to have a miscarriage and die of complications related to childbirth. Americans must pursue structural changes, or Black women will continue to suffer the greatest burden.

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