2019 Online Commentary finalist

A Woman’s Rights

The New York Times

Online Commentary


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About the Project

Arkansas is one of several states that long ago outlawed the abuse of a corpse, likely in an effort to curb necrophilia or if a murderer destroyed a body. Today, however, prosecutors more often turn to such laws to punish women who panic after losing their babies. Keysheonna Reed delivered stillborn twins and faces up to 10 years in prison for concealing the birth.

A nine-part series of editorials in The New York Times revealed that similar laws have also meant that “pregnant women who were addicted to drugs, were suicidal, were in car accidents, fell down stairs, delivered at home, refused C-sections or went about their lives in ways that were perceived to harm their pregnancies have been detained and jailed for a variety of crimes, including murder, manslaughter, neglect, criminal recklessness and chemical endangerment.”

Today at least 38 states and the federal government have so-called fetal homicide laws, which treat the fetus as a potential crime victim. “In the hands of zealous prosecutors, cautious doctors and litigious attorneys, these laws are creating a system of social control that polices pregnancy,” The Times argued in the series by the editorial board and Opinion staff, from Brent Staples, a 35-year veteran of The Times, to Ash Ngu, who arrived last June.

And, they noted, with a growing conservative majority on the Supreme Court, these laws are likely to multiply — and the control to become more pervasive — whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned. In fact, Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court prompted this project.

“It might be tempting to dismiss this vision as dystopian fiction — as a version of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” The Times wrote, “if it weren’t already taking shape in states across the country.”

The project, led by editors Katie Kingsbury and Lauren Kelley, also zeroed in on a question rarely explored amid the incendiary politics of abortion: how to humanely treat pregnant women in tragic situations, particularly drug users.