In a case that has horrified reproductive rights advocates across the country, Marshae Jones, a 27-year-old pregnant Alabama woman, has been indicted for the death of her fetus after being shot in the stomach during a fight. She is being charged with manslaughter for the fetus’s death, and was being held on $50,000 bond as of Wednesday night.
Earlier this year, Jones was shot in the stomach during an altercation in front of a Dollar General store in Pleasant Grove, Alabama. She was five months pregnant at the time. The altercation was reportedly over the identity of the father of Jones’ fetus. Although she was rushed to the hospital shortly afterwards, she lost the pregnancy.
Ebony Jamison, the alleged shooter, was also charged with manslaughter as a result of the shooting. Those charges were later dropped, however, after a grand jury declined to indict her, due to police officials’ claims that Jones had started the fight and Jamison had acted out of self-defense.
Shortly after the initial altercation, police officials were quick to blame Jones for her role in the shooting. “When a five-month pregnant woman initiates a fight and attacks another person, I believe some responsibility lies with her as to any injury to her unborn child,’’ police chief Danny Reid told AL.com after the fight. “That child is dependent on its mother to try to keep it from harm, and she shouldn’t seek out unnecessary physical altercations.”
Jones was charged under Alabama’s fetal homicide law, which defines a “person” as “a human being, including an unborn child in utero at any stage of development, regardless of viability.” Nearly 38 states currently have similar laws on the books, which can hold pregnant women criminally responsible for the death of a fetus.
Ostensibly, fetal homicide laws are intended to protect pregnant people who are victims of violence, says Laurie Bertram Roberts, executive director of the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. “They were supposedly not to be enacted to criminalize the pregnant person, yet we’ve seen repeatedly throughout the country that they haven’t,” Roberts tells Rolling Stone, citing the cases of Latice Fisher, a Mississippi woman who was indicted on second-degree murder charges after giving birth to a stillborn baby in her home, and Bei Bei Shuai, an Indiana woman who was charged under fetal homicide laws after losing her pregnancy in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Last year, Alabama upheld its fetal homicide law in a ruling concerning a man who was convicted of killing his wife when she was eight weeks pregnant. A jury convicted the man of the death of “two or more persons,” including the fetus, and he was sentenced to death. Although he appealed the decision, arguing that a fetus should not be considered to have the full rights of a person, the state Supreme Court rejected his appeal.
Many reproductive rights advocates have argued that fetal homicide laws allow state lawmakers to unfairly prosecute women and hold them accountable for the deaths of their fetuses, whether they are intended or not. They have also argued that fetal homicide laws open the door for the Supreme Court to reassess Roe v. Wade, as Justice Tom Parker wrote following the case last year: “I urge the Supreme Court of the United States to reconsider the Roe exception and to overrule this constitutional aberration. Return the power to the states to fully protect the most vulnerable among us.”
“It’s never been about saving pregnant women or saving pregnant people or the dignity of pregnancy or any of this other nonsense they say, or justice for murdered pregnant women,” Roberts says. “This is just a backdoor run at Roe.”
Last month, Alabama reaffirmed its desire to push the Court to revisit Roe v. Wade by passing a near-total abortion ban, which would prevent women in the state from receiving abortions except in the case of a “lethal” fetal anomaly or a serious health risk to the mother. It did not contain an exception for victims of rape or incest.
Currently, Roberts’ organization is working with the Yellowhammer Fund to help raise money for Jones’ bond. But she says that even if they do raise enough money to get Jones released from prison, the case could have chilling implications for pregnant people across the country. “There’s just this very odd obsession with blaming pregnant women for anything that happens to us during our pregnancies,” she says. What’s next? Are we going to criminalize pregnant people for jogging too much, or for taking medication during their pregnancy? Where do we stop?”