May 23, 2013
On March 14, 2009, 31 weeks into her pregnancy, Nina Buckhalter gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. She named the child Hayley Jade. Two months later, a grand jury in Lamar County, Mississippi, indicted Buckhalter for manslaughter, claiming that the then-29-year-old woman “did willfully, unlawfully, feloniously, kill Hayley Jade Buckhalter, a human being, by culpable negligence.”
The district attorney argued that methamphetamine detected in Buckhalter’s system caused Hayley Jade’s death. The state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the case on April 2, is expected to rule soon on whether the prosecution can move forward.
If prosecutors prevail in this case, the state would be setting a “dangerous precedent” that “unintentional pregnancy loss can be treated as a form of homicide,” says Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a nonprofit legal organization that has joined with Robert McDuff, a Mississippi civil rights lawyer, to defend Buckhalter. If Buckhalter’s case goes forward, NAPW fears it could spur a wave of similar prosecutions in Mississippi and other states.
Mississippi’s manslaughter laws were not intended to apply in cases of stillbirths and miscarriages. Four times between 1998 through 2002, Mississippi lawmakers rejected proposals that would have set specific penalties for damaging a fetus by using illegal drugs during pregnancy. But Mississippi prosecutors say that two other state laws allow them to charge Buckhalter. One definesof manslaughter as the “killing of a human being, by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another”; another includes ”an unborn child at every stage of gestation from conception until live birth” in the state’s definition of human beings.
The cause of any given miscarriage or stillbirth is difficult to determine, and many experts believe there is no conclusive evidence that exposure to drugs in utero can cause a miscarriage or stillbirth. Because of this, prosecuting Buckhalter opens the door to investigating and prosecuting women for any number of other potential causes of a miscarriage or stillbirth, her lawyers argued in a filing to the state Supreme Court—”smoking, drinking alcohol, using drugs, exercising against doctor’s orders, or failing to follow advice regarding conditions such as obesity or hypertension.” Supreme Court Justice Leslie D. King also raised this question in the oral arguments last month: “Doctors say women should avoid herbal tea, things like unpasteurized cheese, lunch meats. Exactly what are the boundaries?”