Brittney Poolaw: Outrage after woman is convicted of manslaughter for miscarriage

A medical examiner cited her drug use as one of several “conditions contributing” to the miscarriage -- the list also included congenital abnormality and placental abruption

                            Brittney Poolaw: Outrage after woman is convicted of manslaughter for miscarriage
Brittney Poolaw convicted of manslaughter for having a miscarriage (Comanche County Jail)

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA: Pregnancy advocates and many on social media have expressed outrage after a 21-year-old woman was convicted of manslaughter for having a miscarriage, which the prosecutor blamed on her alleged use of methamphetamine. Brittney Poolaw, of Lawton, was sentenced to four years in prison earlier this month on October 6 after a jury convicted her of first-degree manslaughter. Poolaw's attorney filed a notice of intent to appeal on October 15. 

As per the New York Times, Poolaw, a member of the Comanche Nation, showed up at the Comanche County Memorial Hospital in Oklahoma last year after suffering a miscarriage at home. She had been about 17 weeks pregnant. According to an affidavit from a police detective who interviewed her, she admitted to hospital staff that she had recently used both methamphetamine and marijuana.


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Brittney Poolaw  (Twitter/@NahanniFontaine)


The Times report says that a medical examiner cited her drug use as one of several “conditions contributing” to the miscarriage -- the list also included congenital abnormality and placental abruption. The Associated Press reported that an autopsy of Poolaw’s fetus showed it tested positive for methamphetamine. But there was no evidence that her meth use caused the miscarriage, which the autopsy indicated could have been caused by other factors.

Poolaw was arrested on a charge of manslaughter in the first degree, and because she couldn’t afford a $20,000 bond, jailed for a year and a half awaiting trial. During the trial, an expert witness for the prosecution testified that methamphetamine use may not have been directly responsible for the death of Poolaw’s fetus.

Nevertheless, after deliberating for less than three hours, a jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to four years in prison. However, from the detective’s affidavit, it seems possible Poolaw’s entire ordeal might have been avoided had she had access to better reproductive health care. Poolaw, the detective wrote, said that “when she found out she was pregnant she didn’t know if she wanted the baby or not. She said she wasn’t familiar with how or where to get an abortion.”

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said: “This prosecution went forward against somebody who had a pregnancy loss before the fetus was considered viable. In this case, you not only have a miscarriage rather than a stillbirth early in pregnancy, but the medical examiner’s report doesn’t even claim that methamphetamine was the cause.”


NAPW released a statement that said, "Oklahoma's murder and manslaughter laws do not apply to miscarriages, which are pregnancy losses that occur before 20 weeks, a point in pregnancy before a fetus is viable (able to survive outside of the womb). And, even when applied to later losses, Oklahoma law prohibits prosecution of the 'mother of the unborn child' unless she committed 'a crime that caused the death of the unborn child.'"

"Ms. Poolaw's case is a tragedy," NAPW said. "She has suffered the trauma of pregnancy loss, has been jailed for a year and a half during a pandemic and was charged and convicted of a crime without basis in law or science."

Last year, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that embryos and fetuses are included in the definition of a “child” for the purposes of prosecuting child neglect cases. Fetuses do not typically have a chance of surviving outside of the womb until at least 24 weeks of gestation, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Women under the age of 35 have a roughly 15 percent chance of suffering a miscarriage, according to the American Pregnancy Association. 

"Transplacental drug transfer should not be subject to criminal sanctions or civil liability," the American Medical Association said in 2017. "In particular, support is crucial for establishing and making broadly available specialized treatment programs for drug-addicted pregnant and breastfeeding women wherever possible."

"Any statute which criminalizes substance use during pregnancy is inherently discriminatory in addition to being counterproductive to the goal of improving maternal and neonatal outcomes," the association said in 2017. "Criminalization and incarceration are ineffective and harmful to the health of the pregnant person and their infant."

On Twitter, many showed support for Poolaw. “We need to organize in support of Brittney Poolaw. The criminalization of addiction, miscarriages, and other medical issues is consistently leveraged against Indigenous women and other women of color,” read one tweet. Another tweet said, “Women prosecuted in these cases are disproportionately women of color, who often higher rates of miscarriage and stillbirth to begin with. Poolaw's fetus had a congenital defect, and she was suffering from placental abruption and chorioamnionitis at the time of her miscarriage.” One person said, “Brittney Poolaw deserves healing for this trauma, *not* punishment.”