Woman who attempted suicide while pregnant is accused of murder
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 April 2011 16.23 BST
Bei Bei Shuai is being held in jail in Indianapolis. Photograph: Michael Conroy/AP
A woman accused of murdering her four-day-old baby girl by trying to kill herself with rat poison while pregnant has become a cause célèbre for US women's groups and civil liberties organisations.
Bei Bei Shuai, 34, a restaurant owner who moved to the US from China 10 years ago, was pregnant and planning to marry her boyfriend until she learned late last year that he was already married and he would be abandoning her.
A few days later, on 23 December, she went to a hardware store, bought rat poison pellets, went back to her flat in Indianapolis and swallowed some. But she did not die immediately and was persuaded by friends to go to hospital.
She was given treatment to counteract the poison and gave birth on New Year's Eve, but her daughter, Angel, suffered seizures and died after four days.
Shuai then had a second breakdown and spent a month in a psychiatric ward, after which she left to stay with friends and began rebuilding her life.
But in March she was arrested and charged with murder and attempted foeticide. She now faces life imprisonment.
"This case has huge implications for pregnant women, not only in Indiana but across the country," said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.
"If we allowed the state to put a woman in jail for anything that could pose a risk to her pregnancy, there would be nothing to stop the police putting in jail a woman who has a drink of wine or who smokes. So where do you draw the line?"
Kolbi-Molinas said there had been an alarming rise in the number of such cases across the US. Some women's groups put the rise down to pressure on prosecutors from anti-abortion groups.
Shuai has been held in Marion County jail, Indianapolis, where she is segregated from other prisoners. She was last in court for a bail hearing on Wednesday but the judge, Sheila Carlisle, has not yet ruled whether she will be kept in custody. Carlisle is expected to begin hearing a motion for the case's dismissal next month.
Linda Pence, Shuai's lawyer, described the decision to prosecute her as "horrible" and "outrageous". She disputes the prosecution's claim that the baby died from rat poison, saying that Shuai received a host of medicines at the hospital, many of which could have caused the death.
The National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) group is helping to mount the defence.
Kathrine Jack, a lawyer with the NAPW, who meets Shuai about once a week, said that after the initial suicide attempt, she had regained hope. "She has been on a rollercoaster," said the lawyer, who argued that women such as Shuai should, rather than being locked up, receive medical and psychiatric help.
Jack, who has been involved in dozens of similar cases where women were charged as a result of incidents while pregnant, said: "Prosecutions like this are increasing in the US and are a result of anti-abortion rhetoric and movements that seek to give the foetus rights above and beyond those of women.
"If it was allowed to stand, it would not outlaw abortion right away but it would be a significant step along the way."
Dave Rimstidt, part of the prosecution team, said careful consideration had gone into the decision to charge Shuai.
"This is a very unique case. Every charging decision is very difficult and goes through a process where we consider all the facts, all the circumstances, and under this situation, we believe we've charged the two charges we can prove," he said.
Utah, Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa and South Carolina are among states to have pressed ahead with cases involving pregnant women and their foetuses, most of which have related to women taking illegal drugs during pregnancy.
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