Samiya Gibbs emerged from the womb lifeless, umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. As Nina Martin of ProPublica explains, Samiya’s mother, Rennie, had become pregnant at age 15. On three occasions during her pregnancy, Rennie tested positive for marijuana, cocaine, or both. She missed medical appointments. And she again tested positive for both substances 36 weeks into the pregnancy, when Samiya was stillborn.
Despite the apparently obvious cause of death—umbilical cord compression—a much-doubted medical expert determined that Samiya’s death was homicide by cocaine toxicity. This determination led to Rennie’s 2007 indictment by a Mississippi grand jury, and a passionately contested legal battle.
As Martin reports, the number of “fetal harm” cases—in which authorities accuse mothers of endangering or killing their fetuses through acts like drug abuse—has been on the rise. But there’s dispute in the scientific community about the effects of cocaine exposure before birth. Beyond that, though, there’s tremendous controversy over the practice of prosecuting mothers for harming their unborn children, a practice that doesn’t appear to have any deterrent effect.
Martin notes that the women suspected of fetal harm via drug use are “disproportionately young, low-income and African American.” And Katie McDonough of Slate observes “an overwhelming consensus among medical experts and healthcare providers that [fetal harm] laws do not improve health outcomes, and produce a chilling effect that keeps pregnant people from seeking prenatal care or treatment for substance use, often for fear of being reported, detained and jailed.”
The fetal-harm controversy is nowhere more conspicuous than in the case of Rennie Gibbs. Prosecutors charged her with what’s called “depraved heart murder” in Mississippi—it’s essentially a form of second degree murder involving extreme recklessness by the defendant. (See Murder vs. Manslaughter: State of Mind.) Over seven years after Samiya’s death, the case is still pending. Most recently, a judge dismissed the murder charge, saying that “the law was unclear in Mississippi as to the appropriate charge, if any, to be levied when a pregnant woman allegedly consumed illegal drugs and allegedly caused the death of her unborn child.” (McDonough.)
Mississippi prosecutors have announced their intention to re-up efforts to get Rennie Gibbs behind bars, and to leave her there for a long, long time. They do so to the condemnation of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Women’s Association, the American Nurses Association, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Institute for Reproductive Health, the National Perinatal Association, and the National Women’s Health Network—to name a few.