Oklahoma Woman Charged With Manslaughter For Her Miscarriage

by Christina Marfice
Originally Published: 
Milan Markovic/Getty

Advocacy groups are rallying to support an Oklahoma woman who was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to prison after she had a miscarriage while using meth

While Texas has garnered much of the country’s focus on women’s rights (and elected officials’ continued assault on them), there are plenty of horrific, Handmaid’s Tale-esque things happening in other places. Take Oklahoma, for example, where a woman was just sentenced to four years in prison for manslaughter after she had a miscarriage.

21-year-old Brittney Poolaw of Lawton, Oklahoma, was convicted of first-degree manslaughter after she miscarried while using meth. Here’s the kicker, though: While an autopsy showed that there was meth in the fetus’s system, it was not shown to have been the cause of the miscarriage. The autopsy actually discovered a number of other potential causes for the miscarriage, including a congenital abnormality and placental abruption, a complication where the placenta detaches itself from the uterus. This means there’s a high likelihood that Poolaw would have miscarried regardless of whether she used drugs. But did that stop an Oklahoma court from arbitrarily deciding that her choices “killed a baby” and holding her accountable for it? Nope.

According to the medical examiner, the fetus was only 15 to 17 weeks old, meaning it wasn’t viable outside the uterus.

“This prosecution went forward against somebody who had a pregnancy loss before the fetus was considered viable,” Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said in a statement. “In this case, you not only have a miscarriage rather than a stillbirth early in pregnancy, but the medical examiner’s report doesn’t even claim that methamphetamine was the cause.”

Comanche County District Attorney Kyle Cabelka and Poolaw’s court-appointed trial attorney, Larry Corrales, have not publicly commented on the case.

While Poolaw’s case is rage-inducing, it’s not an isolated incident. In Oklahoma, a court of appeals has ruled that embryos and fetuses are considered “children” for the purpose of enforcing and prosecuting the state’s laws against child neglect. Mostly, that’s been applied to prosecuting pregnant women who use drugs. But this isn’t a problem unique to Oklahoma.

According to a study commissioned by the NAPW, there were 413 cases of women being prosecuted for losing their pregnancies from 1973 to 2005. From 2006 to 2020, there were 1,250. “So we’re looking at three times as many cases in less than half the period of time as this first study,” says Dana Sussman, NAPW’s deputy executive director. “This is far more common than I think most people would ever believe or understand.”

This is becoming more common, and by a lot. We have to stop this.

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