Thirty-four-year-old Bei Bei Shuai came to Indianapolis from China ten years ago. She opened a restaurant, met a guy, and planned to get married. But last year she found out that the man was already married and was unwilling to leave his wife for her. She was so depressed that just before Christmas, on December 23, 2010, she swallowed rat poison in an attempt to kill herself. Friends found her and convinced her to let them take her to a hospital where her life was saved.
The attempted suicide was tragic enough, but Shuai was thirty-three weeks pregnant by her boyfriend when she swallowed the poison. She gave birth by C-section on New Year’s Eve. Her daughter, Angel, had severe seizures and other medical problems. She died two days later. The coroner’s report said the baby died from consumption of rat poison. Shuai broke down and was sent to a psychiatric facility for a month.
She was discharged in February and went home to try and get her life going again. But in March she was arrested, charged with murder and attempted feticide, and sent to jail. Prosecutors called her a “cold-blooded” murderer. If convicted, she will get a minimum sentence of forty-five years. The death penalty or life in prison without parole are also possibilities.
This story is disturbing not just because it is unconscionable to prosecute as a murderer a pregnant woman who tried to kill herself, but because it is likely that the case was brought to make a point in the ongoing national battle over abortion.
One of Shuai’s attorneys, Katherine Jack, says that “Prosecutions like this are increasing in the U.S. and are a result of anti-abortion rhetoric and movements that seek to give the fetus rights above and beyond those of women.” She believes pro-life proponents think that if Shuai is convicted, “it would not outlaw abortion right away, but it would be a significant step along the way.”
Anti-abortion sentiment has to be driving this prosecution. No state treats as criminals people who attempt or succeed at suicide. It is understood by every state legislature that suicide is a mental health issue, not an act that ought be subject to criminal prosecution. It is only anti-abortion sentiment that would motivate the dimmest of prosecutors to accuse a woman who tried to kill herself of being a murderer.
Suicide is an enormous public health problem. It is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. More than thirty-four thousand people killed themselves last year, a larger number of deaths than are brought about by AIDS, liver disease, or Parkinsonism. Women are three times more likely than men to attempt suicide. Women are at risk of depression during pregnancy even if their boyfriends don’t lie to them and jilt them. Is Shuai’s prosecution going to help reduce these grim numbers or make them worse?
I don’t deny that women who decide to proceed with their pregnancies have moral duties to care for the fetuses they carry. But it seems obvious that Bei Bei Shuai fits poorly into the class of “cold-blooded” murderer.
How far along in a pregnancy does a woman who is pregnant and attempts suicide have to be for her to be charged with feticide? What if she is not even aware that she is pregnant? What if the fetus is not viable?
Aggressively pursuing pregnant women who try—out of depression, overwhelming despair, or other mental illness—to kill themselves with the threat of severe prosecution is not going to serve as a deterrent to suicide or feticide. If Shuai’s case goes forward, severely depressed women in Indiana will know that if anyone finds out about any behavior that might be construed as a suicide attempt, they could be charged with attempted homicide or attempted feticide. At the least, it will prevent some pregnant women who have tried to end their lives from thinking twice and calling friends or an ambulance. At the most, it may even encourage mentally unstable women to follow methods that more effectively ensure their death.
Prosecuting suicide attempts won’t discourage them. Nor will prosecution do anything to enhance the welfare of fetuses. The courts ought to step in and end a prosecution that, if successful, will do far more harm than good.
Arthur L. Caplan is the Sidney D. Caplan Professor of Bioethics and the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.