A 25-year-old woman named Chelsea Cheyenne Becker was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in Hanford, California, after delivering a stillborn baby in September. According to authorities, the stillborn had toxic levels of methamphetamine in its body. Becker’s bail has been set at $5 million. Her arrest attests to a troubling and growing pattern of women in the United States being criminalized for miscarrying or delivering stillbirths for a variety of reasons.
Hanford Police Department’s Detective Sergeant Justin Vallin told CNN that three of Becker’s children had been born with meth in their system; police said she’d lost custody of “multiple children” due to substance-abuse issues. Becker pleaded not guilty at an arraignment on Wednesday, and her next court date is set for November 19. CNN reports that medical professionals believe the stillborn baby may have been exposed to drugs while Becker was pregnant.
Becker’s cousin Terra Ordonez told CNN affiliate KGPE, “I want her to turn herself in. I’m excited for her to straighten up and get clean, because I know she’s smart enough to get out of it.” Ordonez added, “Hopefully it’s an eye-opener for a lot of women who are struggling and pregnant — scream for help.”
Yet murder charges are not an unfortunate but natural outcome of becoming pregnant while dealing with substance-abuse issues. As reproductive-justice advocates argue, cases like this are part of a burgeoning, disturbing pattern, in which the rights of pregnant women are directly pitted against those of the “unborn child,” a term that encompasses fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses. It’s a direct result of the so-called “fetal personhood” movement, which seeks to legally redefine a fetus as a person as a means of overturning Roe v. Wade.
While Becker’s case seems complicated, most experts agree that overzealous punishment of pregnant women with substance-abuse issues does far more harm than good. Additionally, punishing women who use drugs while pregnant opens the door for prosecutors to investigate stillbirths as potential crimes; there have been cases, already, of women being charged for taking prescription medication while pregnant — one woman was reportedly charged for taking a Valium.
These laws are part of a long game but their damaging effects are already felt by many, as is the case with Becker and her loved ones. A better alternative to criminalizing women and reinforcing the carceral state would be to make sure all women have access to quality health care, including substance-abuse treatment and reproductive-health services.