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A Mother Deals with Charges of Murder and Feticide

In December 2010, a soon-to-be mother living in Indiana decided  to ingest rat poison with the intent, at the very least, of killing herself and possibly the 33 week old fetus living inside her. Nobody is completely sure why Bei Bei Shuai decided to make this decision, but she ended up surviving.

Now, 17 months later, Shuai has been released from jail after serving 14 months of being held without bond. Shuai now awaits trial on charges of murder and feticide, or murder for the death of the mother’s fetus. Shuai’s case is the first of its nature in Indiana.

Shuai became pregnant after having an affair with a married man.  Shortly after learning of the pregnancy, the father of the fetus broke off the affair leaving Shuai distraught and feeling like she had few options.  She decided her life was no longer worth living and she began researching various ways to commit suicide.

After deciding that she would use rat poison to commit the act, Shuai wrote a note to the father stating that she was going to kill herself and that she was “taking this baby, the one you named Crystal, with [her].”  Bei Bei Shua v State, 2012 WL 394030, *12 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012).  She then ingested the rat poison and called the father and told him what she had done.

Following a call to the police by an anonymous caller, Shuai was taken to the hospital and treated. While there,  she began having premature contractions. Shortly thereafter, Shuai gave birth to a baby girl who died three days later of “intracerebral hemorrhage due to maternal Coumadin ingestion.”  Bei Bei Shua, 2012 WL 394030, *12.

I think we would all like to pretend that stories like this just don’t happen in the real world; unfortunately, they are far too common.  In fact, my family went through something very similar when my wife was pregnant with Addie.

It is no secret that my wife has struggled with depression.  When she was pregnant with Addie, the depression took hold of her and would not let her go.  The doctors wanted to keep her off medication to avoid any potential side effects that might effect the baby. The result of that bad decision? Casey ended up in the psychiatric ward after trying to commit suicide while she was pregnant. Fortunately, Casey had not done any damage to herself or the baby, but the experience served as a dramatic eye opener for both of us.

The Indiana Court of Appeals, during an interlocutory appeal (an appeal based on issues prior to a trial), makes no mention of whether Shuai was suffering from depression at the time she ingested the rat poison. Shuai’s decision to attempt suicide was researched, planned and executed with precision.  All of which could lead to a presumption that Shuai was very conscious of what she was doing and was not, in fact, suffering from depression. However, people deal with depression in various ways and it would be premature to draw such a conclusion.

This case has strong implications for prospective mothers and the decisions they make while pregnant. Indiana has chosen to classify the knowing and intentional killing of a fetus that has reached viability as murder—even if that act is committed by the mother. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Indiana and other states have taken such a stance. The United States Supreme Court long ago held that a fetus that obtains viability gains rights that must be weighed against the mother’s rights.

The common example used in such a situation is when someone who is suffering from depression decides to commit suicide via gas leak in an apartment. The person intending to commit suicide survives the incident, but a roommate in the same apartment does not. Just because the person who committed the act was suffering from depression does not absolve that person of liability for the death of the roommate.

Likewise, the State in Shuai’s case has made the same argument. Just because Shuai decided to commit suicide does not absolve her of liability for the death of her fetus.

Indiana’s feticide statute, however, muddies the waters.  That statute, which Shuai has also been charged with, makes it a Class B felony to knowingly and intentionally kill a fetus. There is no requirement that the fetus reach the stages of viability.

This standard concerns the New York-based National Advocates for Pregnant Woman. The organization is concerned that the ingestion of certain types of cough syrup could ultimately cause the premature death of a fetus, and the woman who ingested the cough syrup could then face feticide or murder charges because of those actions.  In fact, a judge on the Indiana Court of Appeals dissented in part based on that concern.

If there is a lesson to be taken from Shaui’s current situation, it is that treatment for pregnant women struggling from depression should be a necessity.  Friends and loved ones should watch closely for the signs of depression and should not be afraid to help the pregnant woman with whatever help is needed.  According to the dissenting justice in Shaui’s case, pregnant women, in Indiana at least, should also be conscious of the substances they are taking into their bodies and the consequences it could have on their fetuses or they may one day face the same charges Shuai is facing.

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