Roughly a decade ago, Mississippi resident and prospective mom, Sumati Thomas, was struggling with another pregnancy. After several failed attempts to mother a child, a doctor diagnosed yet another fetus with fatal physical disorders.
“There was something genetically wrong,” Thomas told BGX, and added that the news was “heartbreaking.” “The best thing for my physical health was to have a D&C (Dilation and Curettage), get through it and past it, and hopefully try the next cycle to get pregnant again.”
After accepting that pregnancy was not an easy option, she and her husband, Brian, adopted a daughter. However, a follow-up IVF attempt resulted in a stable pregnancy, surprising them both. Today, Thomas is living the dream of being a mother of two children, but she says Mississippi’s recent move to outlaw most abortions would have complicated the agonizing process.
Immediately after the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court ended Roe v. Wade, Mississippi banned all abortions except for cases when an abortion is necessary to preserve the life of the pregnant person or when the pregnancy is caused by rape. The exceptions are in name only, however, and nonexistent in practice because many Mississippi doctors simply refuse to get into the weeds over whether an exception will protect them in court. Many simply refuse to perform abortions outright. A 13-year-old Black girl in Clarksdale, MS could not end her pregnancy under Mississippi’s draconian law despite being a rape victim and is now a young mother. Thomas’ own abortion 10 years ago would not likely have been easy, despite the embryo’s extreme congenital problems.
“I feel like if that happened now doctors would have hesitated to do the D&C. We had four miscarriages, I had to have three D&Cs. With one, the fetus still had a heartbeat, but it was irregular and there was something obviously wrong with the way it looked on the ultrasound. I think current law would make me wait until there was no heartbeat.”
Thomas said being forced to carry a non-viable pregnancy would “be traumatizing.” Furthermore, delaying the procedure could make the next pregnancy more difficult or impossible if sepsis or infection further weakens a vulnerable uterus.
A World Without Roe
Despite Mississippi making news over raped child mothers, the state’s Attorney General Lynn Fitch is coordinating with other anti-abortion AGs to further target women who travel out of state for OB/GYN services. Fitch signed a letter to the Biden administration opposing a federal rule that would block prosecutors from snooping a patient’s out-of-state health information, including abortion records. Fitch’s passion for probing women’s privates could result in more prosecution for Mississippi women. And since the attorney general can publish prosecution announcements that name suspects, there is nothing to stop a woman’s name from being splashed across the AG’s website alongside the names of child porn and rape suspects.
The state is not alone. Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama led the nation in the prosecution of pregnant women who allegedly posed a danger to their fetuses. And in Mississippi, a Black woman can already be prosecuted for doing an online search for abortion pills. Investigators arrested Starkville mother of three, Latice Fisher, for not wanting a fourth child, and they used Fisher’s cellphone data and internet search results to build a case against her. Fisher voluntarily surrendered her phone to authorities without a warrant.
It's no surprise that Black women with few resources make easy targets. The first woman in the U.S. to be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted over a stillbirth was Regina McKnight, a homeless woman in no position to raise a child in 2001. Later, in 2015, 23-year-old Black woman Kenlissia Jones faced the death penalty in Georgia after a stillbirth.
A September report, The Rise of Pregnancy Criminalization, points out that “Black people represented 18.2% of arrests due to pregnancy criminalization from January 2006 to June 2022, despite Black women making up only 13% of the U.S. population.” The disproportionate scrutiny is making Black women distrustful of medical staff and doctors—and not without reason. It was a hospital social worker who first informed authorities about Kenlissia Jones and kicked off her prosecution.
A second report released last month, Self-Care, Criminalized: The Criminalization of Self-Managed Abortion from 2000 to 2020, examines more than 60 cases of people investigated or arrested for allegedly ending their own pregnancy or helping others do so. That report, by University of Pennsylvania pro bono group Penn If/When/How, says the death of Dobbs created a “completely avoidable human rights crisis,” throwing the nation “into a state of legal chaos regarding abortion access.”
The report found that individuals criminalized for self-managed abortion were frequently reported to police by people they “entrusted with information, be it health care providers or acquaintances.”
The Rise of Pregnancy Criminalization report revealed that reports made by medical professionals or hospital-based social workers “were the most common basis for pregnancy criminalization arrests,” with “one in three cases instigated by a medical professional, and two in five involving family regulation workers.”
It does not help that the tech industry is all too willing to collaborate with abortion hunts.
The “Self-Care” report pointed out that many of these prosecutions expose vulnerable women to additional prosecution even if they get lucky the first time. Any anti-abortion prosecutor looking to scratch notches in his belt can file a subsequent charge against the same defendant either under the same statute or a different one, which leaves the accused dreading their future.
“In at least three cases that ended in a dismissal, prosecutors retained this option if new or additional information came to light. In a fourth case, the prosecutor dismissed charges against a woman, but stated his intention to file future charges in his initial motion to dismiss,” the Self-Care report explains. “Almost a year later, the prosecutor moved forward on his claim and presented a new charge to the grand jury.”
A grand jury declined to reindict Fisher after critics uncovered holes in the dubious “lung float test” conducted on her aborted fetus, but women must still live “with the threat of future criminalization for at least a year after the original dismissal.”
Meanwhile, South Carolina, Oklahoma and other states are laboring to create dangerous new offenses that do not yet exist. Many are considering new legislation giving fertilized embryos personhood rights, which would make IVF procedures, like the one Thomas used, problematic and possibly illegal.
“The IVF process creates many embryos, and many embryos are destroyed. So, some of these laws that consider life at conception would make IVF very difficult,” said Thomas. “I wouldn’t even have my youngest without IVF.”