Chelsea Becker: California SC agrees to murder charge against woman whose stillborn had high levels of meth

The California Supreme Court declined to stop the prosecution of Becker, who was charged with murder after authorities said she used methamphetamine before her fetus was stillborn


                            Chelsea Becker: California SC agrees to murder charge against woman whose stillborn had high levels of meth
(Kings County Sherriff Office)

In 2019, Chelsea Becker of Hanford gave birth to a stillborn baby. It became a subject of national discussion when she was arrested, as the police were alerted that the baby had been 'exposed to drugs'. An autopsy showed high levels of methamphetamine in the baby’s system and Becker was charged with felony first degree murder. While she admitted to taking drugs, she also pleaded not guilty. 

It's 2020, and the case is still continuing. On Wednesday, December 23, the California Supreme Court declined to stop the prosecution of Becker, who was charged with murder after authorities said she used methamphetamine before her fetus was stillborn. State Attorney general Xavier Becerra's challenge was rejected. Becerra's office presents the county prosecutors when their cases are appealed, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Becerra, who has been nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to head the Department of Health and Human Services, is an advocate of reproductive rights. In an letter to the justices, he said that fear of prosecution might prevent pregnant women from requesting more help and additional services. The case could also lead to extra scrutiny by law enforcement on miscarriages and stillbirths. 

Since the September 2019 stillbirth, Becker has been in jail on a $2 million bail. Police reported that methamphetamine was found in the fetus and that Becker, who was 8-and-half months pregnant at the time of the stillbirth, had admitted to 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.” Supporters have argued that substance- use disorder is not a crime, and more of a mental condition. There is a dearth of evidence to say methamphetamine use causes stillbirths. Authorities told local news outlet KGPE that Becker’s three living children had also been born with the drug in their systems.

California is one of the several states around the country where a person might be charged with a crime for harming a fetus through behaviors such as consuming drugs while pregnant. Supporters argue that laws are necessary to convince pregnant people to get clean. However, research has something else to say, and suggests that such policies can actually backfire, making pregnant people less likely to seek prenatal care. A 1970 California law that allows murder prosecution for intentionally or recklessly causing the death of a fetus does not say whether the pregnant woman herself can be charged with murder.  However, it provides a list of 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.”

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