Woman prosecuted after miscarriage. It shows the dangers of pregnancy after Roe

(Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Woman prosecuted after miscarriage. It shows the dangers of pregnancy after Roe



Dec. 16, 2023

Ohio was in the grip of a bitter debate over abortion rights this fall when Brittany Watts, 21 weeks and 5 days pregnant, began developing massive blood clots.

Watts, 33, who hadn’t even shared the news of her pregnancy with her family, made her first prenatal visit to a doctor’s office behind Mercy Health-St. Joseph’s Hospital in Warren, a working-class town about 60 miles

(100 kilometers)

southeast of Cleveland.

The doctor said that while a fetal heartbeat was still present, Watt’s waters had ruptured prematurely and the fetus she was carrying would not survive. He recommended that she go to the hospital to have her labor induced so that she could have an abortion to deliver the non-viable fetus. Otherwise, she would be at significant risk of death, according to her case records.

That was a Tuesday in September. What followed were three harrowing days


multiple trips to the hospital; Watts miscarries in a toilet at her home, then flushes and dumps; a police investigation into those actions; and Watts, who is black, is accused of abuse of a corpse. That’s a fifth-degree felony, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine.

Her case was sent to a grand jury last month. It has created a national firestorm over the treatment of pregnant women, especially Black women, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v.


. The Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that Roe v


. Calf.

Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump raised Watt’s plight in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Michele Goodwin, professor of law at

the University of California, UC

Irvine, and author of Policing


The Womb, said the case follows a pattern of criminalizing women’s pregnancies against them. She said these efforts have long overwhelmingly focused on Black and brown women.

Even before Roe was overturned, studies show that black women who visited hospitals for prenatal care were 10 times more likely than white women to receive child protection services and were called upon by police even when their cases were similar, she said.

What we see after Dobbs is a kind of wild, wild West, Goodwin said. You see this kind of muscle-flexing among district attorneys and prosecutors who want to show that they will be vigilant, that they will take down women who violate the ethos that emanates from the state legislature.

She called Black women canaries in the coal mine for the hyper-vigilant type of policing that women of all races would expect from the nation’s health care network.

health care providers, law enforcement, and courts now that abortion is not federally protected.

At the time of Watts’ miscarriage, abortion was legal in Ohio through 21 weeks and six days of pregnancy. Her attorney, Traci Timko, said Watts spent eight hours at Mercy Health-St. Josephs waited for care on the eve of her 22-week pregnancy before leaving without treatment.

Timko said hospital officials had debated the legalities.

It was the fear of whether this would be an abortion and whether we could do that, Timko said. The hospital did not return calls seeking confirmation and comment.

But B. Jessie Hill, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said the hospital was in trouble.

These are the sharp health decisions

health care providers are forced to make it, she said. And all the incentives ensure that hospitals are conservative, because on the other side is criminal liability.

Warren Assistant Prosecutor Lewis Guarnieri told Warren Municipal Court Judge Terry Ivanchak during Watts’ preliminary hearing that she left the house for a hair appointment after a miscarriage, causing the toilet to clog. Police would later find the fetus wedged in the pipes.

The issue is not how the child died, when the child died, Guarnieri told the judge, according to TV station WKBN. It’s the fact that the baby was put in a toilet, was big enough to clog the toilet, was left in that toilet, and she moved on [with] her day.

In the courtroom, Timko reacted angrily.

This 33-year-old girl with no criminal record is being demonized for something that happens every day, she said.

The size and stage of development of Watt’s fetus became an issue during her preliminary hearing.

At the time, there was a vigorous campaign for Issue 1, an ultimately successful amendment to enshrine the right to abortion in the Ohio Constitution, and included advertisements claiming that the amendment would allow abortions up to birth.

A county forensic examiner reported feeling what appeared to be a small foot with toes in Watt’s toilet. Police seized the toilet and broke it apart to recover the intact fetus as evidence. An autopsy confirmed that the fetus died in utero before passing through the birth canal and identified no recent injuries.

The judge acknowledged the complexity of the case when he turned it over to the grand jury.

There are better scholars than me to determine the exact legal status of this fetus, the corpse, the body, the birth tissue, whatever it is, he said from the court.

Assistant Trumbull County Prosecutor Diane Barber, the lead prosecutor in the Watts case, could not speak specifically about the case other than to say the county has been forced to move forward with it. She does not expect a grand jury verdict this month.

Timko, a former prosecutor, said Ohio’s statute on corpse abuse is vague.

From a legal perspective, there is no definition of corpse, she said. Can you be a corpse if you have never breathed?

Grace Howard, an assistant professor of justice at San Jos State University, said clarity on what constitutes Watts’ conduct as a crime is key.

Her miscarriage was very common,” she said. “So I just want to know what [the prosecutor] thinks she should have done that. Requiring people to collect used menstrual products and take them to hospitals so they can be sure it is indeed a miscarriage is as ridiculous and invasive as it is cruel.

___This story corrects that the case was sent to a grand jury last month, not last week.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Hot Topics

Related Articles