The Case of a Woman in Jail for a Stillbirth May Determine the Future of America’s Abortion Debate

In California, an interesting, tragic case is setting up to shape the future of not just abortion legislation, but also the contours of the debate and the legal consequences of codifying “life begins at conception” into law. Adora Perez is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for the murder of her unborn child, but her case is now the center of a legal battle in which the stakes could very well be the future of the abortion debate.

In 2017, Perez delivered a stillborn baby at a hospital in California. Authorities said the meth found in Perez’s system was likely to blame, and arrested her in the hospital two days later. “I didn’t mean to intentionally hurt my child,” Perez told the LA Times. “You don’t know what it’s like to be on drugs unless you’ve been on drugs.”

Perez was facing a life behind bars until she was offered a plea deal that reduced her sentence to eleven years, which she immediately took. But now a lawyer named Mary McNamara has happened upon Perez’s case, saying the California legal system badly botched her charges.

In California, prosecutors can charge someone who kills an unborn baby with murder, per a 1970 case in which a man was convicted of beating his spouse and ending her pregnancy. But the law says that such charges don’t apply to acts “solicited, aided, abetted or consented to by the mother of the fetus.” In other words, a pregnancy ended by someone else is considered murder in California, but a pregnancy ended by the mother — whether on purpose or, as in Perez’s case, accidentally — is not, though it may be subject to a lesser charge.

Some California prosecutors have attempted to charge women whose pregnancies were ended by drug use over the years, but the cases have always been thrown out. Until Perez. Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes saw, in Perez’s case, an opportunity to overturn what he sees as an unjust law. That’s how Perez found herself in jail and now, McNamara is challenging the charge, saying such a ruling opens pregnant women up to being charged with murder for not just drug use, but things like working a physically demanding job or jaywalking.

The details of Perez’s stories are heartbreaking. A lifetime of physical and sexual abuse at home led to addiction issues that have tormented her ever since. An aunt spoke with the LA Times and told the story of her frequent attempts to get sober, including during the pregnancy that ended in tragedy, and how they were undermined by a boyfriend. Largely alone, her case was barely noted at the time of her trial.

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But two years later, a strikingly similar case did make headlines. Chelsea Becker was another young woman with a history of drug addiction whose pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. Her photo ran in papers across the country, and the publicity prompted a public outcry and several well-funded women’s rights groups called for prosecution to be dropped, though she remains in jail. But McNamara discovered Perez’s case while researching Becker’s, which prompted her to call Perez and offer to take on her case free of charge. “Unless we win these cases, this is going to continue,” McNamara told the Times. “And that’s a thought that just keeps me up at night.” McNamara has even secured the support of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who says he supports Perez’s release.

But Fagundes is equally convinced of the rightness of his side in this. “[Becerra] is encouraging women to abuse their fetuses, and the next step from there is they’ll abuse their children once they’re born,” Fagundes said. “Because it appears there’s no limit to what people like Xavier Becerra will allow.”

Whichever way the case swings, it seems likely to define the future of the abortion debate in the U.S., and test the mettle of abortion restrictions that define life as beginning at conception.

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