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(WOMENSENEWS)–A plea agreement was reached last Friday in the Bei Bei Shuai case, freeing her from jail, yet law enforcement’s response to her attempted suicide continues to raise concerns.
After her boyfriend left her, Shuai consumed rat poison in an attempt to end her life. She was 33 weeks pregnant at the time. While her life was salvaged, her fetus did not survive. Shuai was then imprisoned on charges of murder and feticide.
The trial was set to start in Indianapolis on Sept. 3, but on Aug. 2 Shuai pleaded guilty to criminal recklessness in the death of her baby in December 2010. The murder and attempted feticide charges she faced were dropped. She was sentenced to 178 days in jail and given credit for 89 she actually spent at the Marion County Jail and for another 89 days of "good time," reported the Indianapolis Star.
Before the plea agreement was reached, in a brief written for Shuai’s case, a team of researchers disputed the idea that a pregnant woman’s suicide attempt indicates an intent to harm her fetus.
"Suicidal ideations are not necessarily tied to thoughts about the fetus," says the brief, written by Dr. Vivien K. Burt, Professor Michelle Oberman and Dr. Margaret Spinelli. "Moreover, suicidal thoughts must be viewed in the context of the disease."
While it was once believed that pregnancy offered protection against mood disorders, doctors say Shuai’s suicide attempt isn’t so unusual.
"Depression is common during pregnancy, impacting up to 1-in-5 women," said Dr. Katherine Gold, a family physician based in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Suicidal ideation is seen in up to 30 percent of those depressed pregnant women."
There’s just a misconception, she said, that when a woman is expecting, she can’t be unhappy.
"People don’t really understand that you can still have these problems during pregnancy," she said.
Gold said a significant risk for suicide develops when a depressed woman is facing problems with her partner. And, in general, suicidal thoughts are difficult to combat.
During such a time, a person’s thinking becomes clouded and she is "not flexible to consider other options," said Dr. Art Thalassinos, a psychiatrist based in Columbus, Ohio. "Some patients describe [these thoughts] as being torturous."
Shuai’s Strong Supporters
Shuai’s supporters fought to get the charges dismissed. A "Free Bei Bei" petition on Change.org garnered more than 100,000 signatures.
The National Advocates for Pregnant Women, an organization based in New York City, also provided advocacy support for the case. For example, the group hosted an April protest in Indianapolis for Shuai that attracted more than 100 attendees.
In a recent phone interview, Lynn Paltrow, the organization’s executive director, said she’d visited Shuai on several occasions and described her as "an intelligent, caring person" who wants to "stay strong for all women."
Aside from Shuai’s well-being, Paltrow was concerned that if the case had gone to trial, the ruling could have set a dangerous legal precedent for pregnant women.
"Through this prosecution the state is arguing that there should be separate and unequal laws for pregnant women," Paltrow said. "It could mean anything that a pregnant woman does can be charged."
As an example, she said a pregnant woman might not admit to her therapist that she is depressed or suicidal out of fear of being reported to authorities.
Paltrow added that pregnant women are already having their rights to privacy trampled. She recalled a story of a woman who didn’t attend her diabetes treatment and was committed to the hospital for the remainder of her pregnancy.
In her 2012 article "Roe v. Wade and the New Jane Crow: Reproductive Rights in the Age of Mass Incarceration," Paltrow notes that since 2005, an estimated 200 pregnant women were arrested because of an incident involving their fetuses. Those prosecuted included a woman who delayed a Cesarean section and another who had a still-birth following a home delivery.
Prosecutors of the Shuai case were misinterpreting existing law, Paltrow said.
Feticide laws, she said, were not intended to penalize pregnant women. They were created to protect pregnant women against assault.
Homicide was the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States during the ’90s, according to a study published in the March 2005 edition of the American Journal of Public Health. Statistics from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also indicate that intimate-partner violence affects more than 300,000 pregnant women in the U.S. annually.
Under Indiana’s feticide law, voluntary manslaughter is committed by a "person who knowingly or intentionally kills a fetus," and these laws do not target women who have abortions, according to the National Conference of State Legislature, based in Washington, D.C.
"What the prosecutor is trying to do is say it wasn’t an attempted suicide but a self-abortion," Paltrow said.
Terry Curry, the Marion County prosecutor in the case against Shuai, declined to comment on why he found the charges of murder and feticide justifiable.
Suicide attempts are also not against the law. Psychiatric services are offered for survivors; however, this was not the case for Shuai.
Born in Shanghai, Shuai moved to Indiana a little over 10 years ago when her now ex-husband obtained employment in Indianapolis, according to the office of Linda Pence, the attorney defending Shuai. She dreamed of graduating from an American university.
Instead, she divorced her former husband and later started a relationship with a new man.
After she discovered she was pregnant, Shuai opened a Chinese restaurant in Indianapolis with the hopes that it would become the foundation for their family. When she was between 7 and 8 months pregnant, the man by whom she was pregnant left. That December of 2010, Shuai decided to end her life.
Shuai’s friend found her in her near death state and took her to the hospital. The doctors eventually informed the 34-year-old that a Cesarean procedure was the only feasible option to keep the baby alive. She named her daughter Angel but in the days following, the newborn died.
In March 2011, Shuai was arrested and was released on bail one year later. If the case had gone to trial, she faced 45 to 65 years in prison.
Anna Halkidis is a multimedia journalist who received her master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2012. She’s also the founder and editor of Music is Love.
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