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AL Case Shows Issues In 'Fetal Personhood' Legal Theory

An ongoing lawsuit in Alabama represents the far-reaching criminalization of women enabled by some anti-abortion ideology and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, reports Reuters. The result of the Alabama case, which involves a woman merely suspected of being pregnant, could be a bellwether for various cases relitigating women’s rights after the high court’s decision. Etowah County officials are facing what appears to be the first lawsuit in the state alleging false imprisonment because a woman who was jailed for exposing her unborn child to drugs wasn’t pregnant. Stacey Freeman was under investigation by a family services agency for substance abuse when her daughter incorrectly told social workers that Freeman was pregnant. Freeman said she offered to take a pregnancy test, but it wasn’t administered. Sheriff’s investigator Brandi Fuller later issued a “patently false” warrant saying Freeman tested positive for amphetamines, the lawsuit says. She was arrested for “chemical endangerment” days later by sheriff’s deputies who stopped to assist her with a flat tire. Freeman said she was forced to provide a urine sample in jail, which showed she wasn't pregnant. She was released only after Fuller "admonished" her, saying she would be charged if she were to get pregnant within the next few months.

Freeman’s ordeal is not the only one. Officials in Shelby County, Al., more than seven years ago brought and later dismissed chemical endangerment charges against a woman who also wasn't pregnant. In 2019, an Alabama grand jury indicted a woman who lost her unborn baby when she was shot, after declining to charge the shooter because it found she had fired in self-defense. Those cases demonstrate the dangers of the “fetal personhood” argument – which holds that the law should grant full personhood rights to fetuses and even fertilized eggs. The idea has been used to support efforts to punish women for behavior considered risky to pregnancies or for seeking abortions. Martin Weinberg, who represents Freeman, said her case "is a manifestation of why this is just not a pragmatic way" to go about protecting infants or women. Etowah County is the epicenter of pregnancy criminalization, said Emma Roth of the group Pregnancy Justice. The group has tracked the criminalization of women and pregnancy – more than 1,300 arrests and detentions that wouldn’t have happened if the person weren’t pregnant or suspected to be – since 1973. Alabama prosecutes more pregnant people than any other state, and Etowah County leads with more than 150 cases since 2010. Advocates argue that fetal personhood is a short, slippery slope to nearly unfettered regulation of anyone who may be pregnant and in practice, has led to the criminalization and increased state control over women – mostly Black women, historically, and exclusively low-income women, generally.


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