After her pregnancy ended in a stillbirth last year, a woman in California was charged with murder. Kings County prosecutors said that the fetus had died because the woman, Chelsea Becker, used methamphetamines during her pregnancy.
The case has captured the attention of civil rights groups and reproductive health advocates, who have argued that the charges against Ms. Becker could set up a dangerous precedent for criminalizing the choices that women make while pregnant.
Ms. Becker, who has been in jail since her arrest in November and is being held with bail set at $2 million, challenged the murder charge in a petition. It was denied by the Superior Court of Kings County in June.
On Friday, California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, weighed in.
Mr. Becerra wrote an amicus brief in support of Ms. Becker’s petition, arguing that the Superior Court’s interpretation of state law would “subject all women who suffer a pregnancy loss to the threat of criminal investigation and possible prosecution for murder.” He added that the petition to end criminal proceedings against her should be granted.
“Our laws in California do not convict women who suffer the loss of their pregnancy, and in our filing today we are making clear that this law has been misused to the detriment of women, children and families,” Mr. Becerra added in a statement.
Lawyers for Ms. Becker are taking the case to California’s Fifth District Court of Appeal. They have also filed a writ of habeas corpus to argue for Ms. Becker’s release, citing concerns about the coronavirus — which has surged in jails and prisons across the United States.
Ms. Becker, 26, of Hanford, in central California near Fresno, was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she delivered a stillborn baby in September.
A November statement from the Hanford Police Department said the coroner’s office in Kings County had ruled the fetus’s death a homicide because of toxic levels of methamphetamine in the fetus’s system, adding that Ms. Becker “further admitted to law enforcement she used methamphetamine while she was most recently pregnant as late as three days prior to giving birth to the stillborn fetus.”
Lawyers for Ms. Becker have argued that claims that the stillbirth was caused by methamphetamine lack scientific basis.
Phil Esbenshade, the executive assistant district attorney for Kings County, said the case hinged on whether the state’s penal code exempts pregnant women from criminal liability in cases like these. “This is not a case about abortion nor women’s reproductive rights,” he said. “This is a case about a person who did specific acts that resulted in the death of a viable fetus.”
California is among 38 states that have fetal homicide laws recognizing the fetus as a victim in cases of violence against a pregnant woman, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In recent years, charges of feticide, manslaughter or murder have been brought against women in states including Indiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi. Last year in Alabama, a woman was charged with manslaughter after another woman shot her in the stomach and her 5-month-old fetus did not survive. The case stirred national outrage, and that charge was dropped a week later.
In California, another woman in Kings County, Adora Perez, was charged with murder in 2018 after a stillbirth following methamphetamine use. Ms. Perez, who was prosecuted by the same district attorney as Ms. Becker, pleaded guilty on the lesser charge of manslaughter and is now serving an 11-year prison sentence.
In recent years, fierce battles over reproductive rights have been playing out in legislatures and courts across the country, often resulting in sweeping abortion restrictions at the state level, although the Supreme Court delivered a setback to abortion opponents in June.
Jacqueline Goodman, a lawyer for Ms. Becker, said the outcome of her case would reverberate beyond the borders of Kings County, and that prosecutions like these could make pregnant women afraid to seek health care or counseling for substance abuse.
“It’s part of a nationwide effort to criminalize abortion,” she said of the murder charge. “That’s where this comes from.”
Ultimately, Ms. Becker’s case comes down to the courts’ interpretation of a small subsection in California’s criminal code. Penal Code Section 187 is the state’s primary statute for murder, which it defines as “the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.”
The reference to a fetus was added in 1970. That amendment, written by a former Republican state assemblyman, W. Craig Biddle, came in response to a case in which a man assaulted his pregnant wife in order to destroy the fetus she was carrying. The man’s murder conviction was overturned because the penal code did not refer to fetuses as potential victims of homicide.
The 1970 amendment not only added a reference to the fetus; it also outlined exceptions as to what could be considered a homicide, including cases in which “the act was solicited, aided, abetted or consented to by the mother of the fetus.”
Mr. Biddle died in 2018. But in a 1992 court declaration, he said that the “sole intent” of the amendment had been “to make punishable as murder a third party’s willful assault on a pregnant woman resulting in the death of her fetus.”
He added, “No legislator ever suggested that this legislation, as it was finally adopted, could be used to make punishable as murder conduct by a pregnant woman that resulted in the death of her fetus.”
But Mr. Esbenshade of the Kings County District Attorney’s Office said on Monday that nothing in the statute excuses “the reckless or indifferent unlawful conduct of a mother that results in the unlawful death of her fetus.”
Daniel N. Arshack, a lawyer for Ms. Becker who also serves as counsel to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a nonprofit organization based in New York, said the prosecutors’ interpretation could make it possible for women to be criminally prosecuted for stillbirths that resulted from, say, a car accident if the woman was not wearing a seatbelt.
Mr. Arshack welcomed Mr. Becerra’s amicus brief and said Ms. Becker’s case should be dismissed. “Opinions of the attorney general, while not binding, are entitled to great weight,” he said. “If it doesn’t make a difference, we have the California Supreme Court to appeal to.”