Bei Bei Shuai tried to kill herself with rat poison last year. She survived. But she was pregnant, and her fetus died. Now she’s being charged with murder and attempted feticide.
Shaui’s downward spiral began in late December, when her boyfriend blindsided her. It turned out the man who had fathered her baby and promised to marry her, and with whom she’d recently opened a restaurant, wasn’t going to follow through on any of his promises. He was married to someone else—not divorced, as he’d told Shuai—with two children. And perhaps lacking vision or a spine, he decided he didn’t want to give up his estranged family to start a new one. He left Shuai, sobbing on her knees, alone in a parking lot.
When Shuai looked up, she saw a hardware store, walked in and bought rat poison. She went back to her apartment in Indianapolis and ate the pellets. But she was surprised when they didn’t immediately kill her. Frustrated, she got back in her car and drove northeast to Anderson, where several close friends live, though she didn’t go to any of them. Instead, she went to a gas station, where by chance, Sui Mak’s husband, Bing, spotted her. She was puffy-eyed, pale, out of sorts. He convinced her to drive straight to their home and have a meal. Finally, she confided about the rat poison. They coaxed her into the car and drove her to the hospital.
Shuai spent Christmas on the maternity ward at Methodist hospital in Indianapolis. On New Year’s Eve, doctors decided a cesarean was necessary. The Maks’ 14-year-old daughter named the baby girl: Angel. Everyone expected mother and child to make a full recovery, but after the delivery, Angel started to decline. The hospital asked Shuai to sign forms allowing blood transfusions and procedures. On January 2nd, doctors asked her permission to take the newborn off life support. At that point, law enforcement was notified.
The prospect of her baby’s death led to a second breakdown, according to Mak’s testimony, which was relayed by Shuai’s attorney, Linda Pence. “She was fainting and crying, fainting and crying, drifting in and out of sleep. She was completely unstable.” But that evening, with the help of her friends, she decided to take Angel off life support. Shuai “held the baby for five hours straight until she died in her arms,” said Pence. ‘The whole time Bei Bei was crying and screaming, ‘Why couldn’t I die? Why did they have to take my baby?’”
Shuai spent the next month on the hospital’s psych ward, recovering and grieving. By March, she had resumed running her restaurant. That’s when the state locked her up.
Prosecuting a pregnant woman for attempted suicide is an extreme interpretation of the law, and puts pregnant women in a special class — men and women who aren’t pregnant are never prosecuted for trying to kill themselves.
“Indiana does not prosecute people for attempted suicide,” said Indiana University law professor, medical doctor, and former state representative David Orentlicher. “So now this prosecutor is saying, ‘If you’re suicidal, you better not get pregnant, because you might get thrown in jail.’ That to me is a very important constitutional problem.”
And it’s a very scary proposition, though it isn’t new. Women have been prosecuted for child abuse or feticide when they miscarry; pregnant women who are addicted to drugs have been charged with trafficking drugs to minors; and pregnant women have been forced to deliver via cesarean section under court order. Some states also require doctors to report if a pregnant woman is taking drugs — a law which sounds reasonable on its face, until you think through the logical outcome: Women who are addicted to drugs just won’t seek medical care, which means they won’t get treatment for their addictions and won’t get basic pre-natal care. Cases like this one present the same issue for women with mental health problems — if you’re pregnant and contemplating suicide but talking to a doctor means you might get thrown in jail, you aren’t going to seek help.
It seems obvious that the endgame of this fetus movement is to recriminalize abortion, and these are the grounds on which pro-choice groups oppose such laws. But Paltrow argues that it’s a mistake to think in such narrow terms—that doing so “has ignored how these laws would be used to hurt pregnant women themselves.” Feticide laws are used “as a legal basis to deprive women of their personhood,” she said. “It’s not just reproductive rights. It’s not just the right to privacy. It gives the state authority to say that, while other human beings will have health problems that will be treated through a compassionate health-care response, pregnant women alone will be imprisoned without bail for not being able to guarantee the outcome of their pregnancy.”
All of which makes the state of Indiana—and Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, and some 30 other states with feticide laws—seem cruel if not unusual for imprisoning a woman who happened to be pregnant when she tried to kill herself. I posed this notion to Marion County’s Rimstidt, but he didn’t get it: “You mean the fact that she killed her baby with rat poison is cruel?”