In Alabama, a black woman is facing criminal charges after being shot in the stomach and having a miscarriage. The story has drawn national attention and outrage from reproductive rights groups who argue that the incident is a disturbing example of the mistreatment and criminalization of low-income pregnant women of color.
On Wednesday, Marshae Jones, a 27-year-old woman from Birmingham, was taken into police custody after being indicted in Jefferson County on a manslaughter charge. She is currently being held on a $50,000 bond.
In December, Jones — then five months pregnant — got into an altercation with a 23-year-old woman outside of a store. The woman, Ebony Jemison, pulled out a gun and shot Jones in the stomach. Jones miscarried shortly after.
According to a report from Al.com, police initially charged Jemison with manslaughter over the shooting. But a jury declined to indict her, saying that Jones initiated the altercation and that Jemison was acting in self-defense when she shot at Jones.
Local police argued that Jones deserved the blame not only for the shooting but also for not removing herself from the situation earlier. Pleasant Grove Police Lt. Danny Reid said that Jones allegedly “initiated and pressed the fight,” according to Al.com.
“Let’s not lose sight that the unborn baby is the victim here,’’ Reid said. “She had no choice in being brought unnecessarily into a fight where she was relying on her mother for protection.” Alabama is one of 38 states with a fetal homicide law that recognizes a fetus as a potential victim of a crime against a pregnant woman.
When the indictment was reported on Wednesday, it immediately raised questions about why the woman who was shot was the one charged. It’s not the first time that Alabama has been in the news for pursuing controversial criminal charges against a woman of color: In 2018, Jacqueline Dixon, a black woman from Selma, was charged with murder after shooting her abusive husband in self-defense. Media coverage of Dixon’s case noted that she had not been protected by Alabama’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, and local police said that Dixon did not seek consistent enforcement of a protection order against her estranged husband. A jury declined to indict Dixon later that year.
Based on the information that has been released so far, advocates argue that Jones’s ordeal, in some ways, highlights another problem: the ways that mothers and expecting women — especially black women — deal with what a 2012 New York Times Magazine article called the “criminalization of ‘bad mothers,’” the use of the justice system to prosecute women for things like miscarriages caused by drug misuse. In other cases, women have faced criminal charges after the death of their children in accidents, or for inducing their own abortions. In Alabama, advocates note that these sorts of prosecutions are particularly frequent, and they fear that they could increase further due to a new (but not yet implemented) law banning most abortions in the state.
Jones’s story calls attention to the criminalization and shaming of pregnant black women and black mothers
News of Jones’s indictment has been surprising for many, but hers is far from the first case of a woman being aggressively prosecuted after a miscarriage.
In March 2018, police in eastern Arkansas announced that they had arrested Keysheonna Reed, a black woman who had placed the bodies of her stillborn twins in a suitcase after unexpectedly going into labor in her bathtub in December 2017. When the suitcase was found on the side of a county road weeks later, Reed was charged with two felony counts of abuse of a corpse, and her bail was set at $50,000. A medical examination later confirmed that both twins died in the womb. Reed still awaits trial.
In a more high-profile case, Purvi Patel, a woman of color from Indiana, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015 after prosecutors said that she had taken abortion-inducing drugs and later miscarried, violating a decades-old state law against feticide. Patel was released from prison in 2016 after the feticide conviction was overturned.
In other cases, women have been prosecuted for the accidental deaths of their children. In 2011, for example, a black woman named Raquel Nelson was convicted of homicide after her 4-year-old son was struck by a drunk driver as Nelson’s family crossed the street. Prosecutors argued that Nelson was negligent for not using a crosswalk.
Experts and women’s rights groups say the women in many of these situations are being judged harshly for failing to meet social expectations of how mothers and pregnant women should behave.
These judgments happen to women of various races, and black women and women of color aren’t the only ones who have faced prosecution. But the use of the justice system can be especially fraught for black women, who face gendered as well as racialized assumptions about what a “good mother” looks like. Stereotypes of the “welfare queen,” often rendered as a single black mother unfairly forcing the government to care for her children, remain a powerful trope in discussions of social policy. Black single mothers also continue to be shamed and ridiculed, most notably by politicians, largely due to assumptions that a single mother’s children will suffer under her care.
But black women are also shamed for decisions not to have children. Activists involved in black anti-abortion advocacy, for example, argue that black women are single-handedly committing “black genocide” by getting abortions, and that the “least safe place for black baby in America is in the womb.”
And many of these issues are further highlighted in political debates over issues like abortion, with reproductive rights groups arguing that some politicians are more interested in regulating women’s actions than they are in helping the conditions that affect low-income women and children.
Advocates say Jones’s story is a troubling sign of what could be in Alabama’s future
Marshae Jones’s indictment comes just over a month after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the strictest anti-abortion law in the country, effectively banning almost all abortions in the state and not including exceptions for rape and incest.
That law is not set to take effect until November, and Jones was not charged under it. Still, reproductive rights groups say it is alarming that she was indicted, pointing to the case as a potential sign of what will happen to women, especially low-income women of color in the state, once the law is in effect.
“Marshae Jones is being charged with manslaughter for being pregnant and getting shot while engaging in an altercation with a person who had a gun,” Amanda Reyes of the Yellowhammer Fund, an abortion rights advocacy group, said in a statement. “Tomorrow, it will be another black woman, maybe for having a drink while pregnant. And after that, another, for not obtaining adequate prenatal care.”
Reproductive justice groups argue that these issues also reflect a tragic reality in several states with highly restrictive abortion laws, many of which struggle with high rates of poverty, high maternal and infant deaths, and wide racial disparities in infant and maternal mortality. This is also the case in Alabama, which is the sixth poorest state in the nation, where black women are roughly three times more likely than white women to die during or shortly after childbirth. In 2014, fewer than half of the state’s 67 counties had hospitals that offered obstetrics services, limiting many rural women’s ability to access pre- and postnatal health care.
Reproductive rights advocates say Jones’s treatment shows that women are still being punished and criminalized for things they shouldn’t be, and that the system is failing them in too many ways. “This what 2019 looks like for a pregnant woman of color without means in a red state,” NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue tweeted on Wednesday, along with a link to a media story about Jones. “This is now.”