Miscarriage Isn’t Illegal, But It’s Increasingly Treated With Suspicion

The "swarm" of police at a Dallas high school over a miscarriage in the bathroom shows exactly where anti-choice hysteria leads us: to treating every failed pregnancy like it's cause for suspicion.

Police gather after a fetus was discovered in the bathroom at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas.

Given that anti-choice hysteria is, you know, hysteria, it was always destined to infect areas of life beyond the decision to deliberately terminate a pregnancy. If you have any doubt about that, please bear witness to the three-ring circus that arose because of a miscarriage last week. Yes, even though spontaneous miscarriages occur in 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies, paranoia and anger about the ones deliberately induced by abortion is making it unsafe for all women to go through this natural and common life process.

As Rewire‘s Nina Liss-Schultz reports, a fetus was discovered in the bathroom at Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas last Friday. The aforementioned high rate of miscarriage suggests a likely explanation: A student miscarried in the bathroom and, unable to figure out what to do, just left the results there and tried to pretend nothing happened. (In fact, that’s what officials eventually determined to be the case.) Since neither being pregnant in high school nor miscarriage are classified as crimes—not yet, anyway—the situation called for a muted and calm reaction.

Instead, however, administrators summoned local police. And, even though miscarriage is not a crime, officers opened up an investigation and “called for help in identifying a ‘suspect,’” as Liss-Schultz reported. Soon, the high school was swarming with cops, leaving students and parents to panic as at least one police helicopter buzzed overhead—all to look for a girl who experienced something that is an expected outcome for 10 to 20 percent of pregnancies.

“We’re reviewing video, talking to the teachers, trying to determine if anybody has any knowledge of any student that may have had something going on in their life, and pray,” Dallas Police Major John Lawton told reporters on the scene, because a normal life process now requires police statements to the public. What’s next? Legal interventions if high school students are caught menstruating on school grounds?

Major Lawton’s statement—and the police department’s overall reaction—make it clear that they suspected the girl in question may have done something to deliberately terminate her pregnancy. And even though police did announce later that the miscarriage was apparently not induced, it’s not entirely out-of-bounds to believe that self-abortion was a possibility here. After all, with disappearing access to safe, legal clinics in Texas and the growing black market in abortion-causing drugs such as misoprostol, there are plenty of potential reasons for women—particularly teenage girls, who have even more restricted access—to take measures into their own hands.

But that also leaves them open to persecution, as anti-choicers exploit the murky legal framework to find ways to punish anyone caught—or even just suspected—of self-abortion.

In Indiana, for example, a woman named Purvi Patel is facing a possible sentence of decades in prison for not producing a live baby. Patel admitted to taking abortion-causing pills, which induced labor; she was caught when she went to the emergency room to get help for the bleeding. The fetus was found dead in a dumpster. The messed-up thing about the situation is that the State of Indiana is so determined to put Patel in prison that they’ve hit her with two conflicting charges. If they determine that the baby was born alive, they’re going to prosecute her for “neglect.” But if she successfully terminated the pregnancy, she’s getting hit with “fetal murder of an unborn child.” Heads, you lose; tails, they win.

But the situation is even more frightening than that. Even if you don’t try to end your own pregnancy, you could be subject to an investigation for being insufficiently excited about having a baby.

Take the case of Christine Taylor, who was arrested in Iowa for merely saying out loud to a nurse that she had considered abortion. Taylor had fallen down a flight of stairs; when she went to a private hospital, she was accused of trying to abort her (unharmed) fetus, even though there was literally no evidence of this beyond her very understandable concerns about having a baby with her estranged husband.

Part of the problem is that the distinctions between a spontaneous miscarriage, an induced abortion, and a stillbirth are not hard and fast. In fact, a misoprostol-caused abortion, particularly in the early stages, is impossible to distinguish from a plain old miscarriage when you present at a hospital. If law enforcement really is serious about punishing women for self-abortion—and this situation in Dallas suggests that there’s a lot of eagerness to do just that—then that means simply having a miscarriage is going to open a lot of women up to this kind of ugly, intrusive response from law enforcement.

Functionally speaking, the real difference between an abortion and a spontaneous miscarriage is intent. If we’re really going to live in a society where abortion is treated like murder and subject to legal penalties, then that necessarily means treating every miscarriage like it’s a potential crime and subjecting women to intrusive and hostile lines of questioning. And even if you didn’t intend to end your pregnancy, that may not be enough to protect you from prison.

It may seem hard to believe, but that’s exactly what’s happened in El Salvador, where rigid anti-choice laws have led many women to be thrown in jail because the police decided that they were lying when they said they didn’t want to miscarry. Attorney Dennis Munoz Estanley has taken on the cases of 29 separate women who were found guilty of murder or abortion because they miscarried a pregnancy. Of the 29, Estanley says that only one actually induced her own abortion. The rest were just women the police decided must be lying about it.

At the end of the day, anti-choicers aren’t just trying to end access to legal abortion. They’re pushing a model of what they think womanhood should be: chaste, highly feminine, submissive, and oriented towards motherhood. That means any woman who fails to meet those ideals by being less than stoked about a pregnancy or by reacting to pregnancy loss in ways that they don’t approve of is in very real danger of falling under suspicion. And now that the cops are getting called on someone for miscarrying in a bathroom, we’ve gotten one step closer to the anti-choice dystopia.