The California Supreme Court declined Wednesday to stop the murder prosecution of a woman who had used methamphetamine and whose fetus was stillborn.
In doing so, the court rejected a rare challenge by the state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, whose office normally represents county prosecutors when their cases are appealed, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.
But Becerra, tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is also a supporter of reproductive rights and in a letter to justices said that fear of prosecution may prevent pregnant women from seeking addiction services. The case could also prompt extra scrutiny by law enforcement on miscarriages and stillbirths, he said.
Chelsea Becker of Hanford has been in jail on $2 million bail since the September 2019 stillbirth. Police say methamphetamine was found in the fetus and that Becker, who was 8½ months pregnant at the time of the stillbirth, had admitted recently using the drug.
Philip Esbenshade, executive assistant to Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes, said the law authorizes a murder charge for “the reckless or indifferent unlawful conduct of a mother that results in the unlawful death of her fetus.”
“This is not a case about abortion nor women’s reproductive rights,” he said in a statement to the Chronicle. “This is a case about a person who did specific acts that resulted in the death of a viable fetus.”
A 1970 California law allowing murder prosecution for intentionally or recklessly causing the death of a fetus does not say whether the pregnant woman herself can be charged. But it lists circumstances that would bar prosecution, including legal abortion, medical intervention to save the woman’s life, or any act that was “solicited, aided, abetted or consented to by the mother of the fetus.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect amount for Becker’s bail. The story has been updated.