Locking up pregnant women

Date January 16, 2013

Amy Gray

Queensland’s Child Protection Inquiry has received a submission from the Queensland Police Union (QUPE) advocating that pregnant women who use drugs and alcohol should be locked up or placed under conditions to protect their unborn babies.

Inside the nine page document are a series of recommendations of changes to be made to the Child Protection Act, chiefly concerned with the QUPE complaining at having to do DoCs work and their plans to regulate all those wayward pregnant women.

As they state in their submission, the part of the Act which pertains to the rights and liberties of a pregnant woman “needs to be abolished.” A woman is now considered secondary to the pregnancy she carries.

 The QUPE calls on the inquiry for the rights to:

  • request intervention orders against pregnant women
  • take the mother into care pending birth
  • impose forced medical check ups
  • impos[e] conditions on the mother during the pregnancy, which may extend to where she resides and who she has contact with during her pregnancy

In case it’s not clear, the Queensland Police Union would like to start rounding up, monitoring and curtailing the personal choices and liberties of pregnant women.

Though this organisation has delivered a shoddily presented and ill-conceived set of recommendations to a panel, it does not mean it will be accepted or, even if it is, inquiry recommendations are often left to mould on shelves without adoption. So far, so ineffectual. What is newsworthy here is how the Queensland Police Union, whose members protect and defend their state, view women. And they don’t view them well at all.

Socially, this is not news for women. With every chastisement, unsolicited recommendation and unbidden hand that launches at our bellies, we’ve long known we were pregnancy-policed by the public. Now it appears real police would like to get in on the fun and tell us that we are hosts for the child – not a mother growing dependent life, not even two parties: we are the lesser life form because it’s all about the baby.

Helpfully, the Queensland Police Unionclarifies that it is not calling for anti-abortion laws, which must be a blessing for those living in a state with ambiguous abortion laws at best. Because it’s never a legal slipperly slope for female body autonomy when you request the legal rights of a woman be removed, right?

Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that this recommendation comes from the same union that complains about the workload of administrative duties relating to investigating children at risk and sex offenders in the community.

Instead, let us focus on the impact of this decision for women within society within the framework of statistics.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in their Drugs in Australia 2010 report state that “Alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use was significantly lower among pregnant women than women who were not pregnant. The proportion of pregnant women smoking has declined from 2001 to 2010.“

The report lists the findings of a National Drugs Strategy Household Survey which found that alcohol consumption amongst pregnant women dramatically drops, with 48.9 % abstaining completely, 48.7 reducing their alcohol intake and 2.0% maintaining their existing drinking (the level of which is not verified). Only 0.2% of respondents increased their intake of

When it comes to illicit drug use, 8.3% of women who were pregnant and/or breastfeeding in the past 12 months admit to the use of cannabis, pharmaceutical for non-medicinal purposes and other illicit drugs. Bear in mind that this figure includes women who had used drugs prior before they knew they were pregnant and, according to the report, “are significantly lower than for other women in the community”.

Bearing in mind the above statistics, if a system exists that penalises and curtails a pregnant woman for drug or alcohol issues, how likely would a woman be to actually seek assistance for the matter? The fear of being taken into ‘care’, restricted from seeing people she knows and other restrictions would prevent her from seeking the help she may need.

Karen Healy, President of the Australian Association of Social Workers agrees. In an interview with the Australian, she branded the proposal “concerning” and that “It could lead to women not disclosing they are using drugs to medical practitioners…It may actually reduce the capacity of medical professionals to monitor these children.”

So, not only would this recommendation actually not prevent the risky behavior, it could potentially not only drive it underground but also scare women away from support.

So, who will think of the babies, you ask? Who will protect them from their mothers? There is no doubt there are at risk pregnancies – but they are not widespread  and policing and punishment won’t help. Only rational programs and support will. There is no doubt this is a complex area but if we don’t learn from the horrors of past generations, we will never solve problems for the future.

Consider also the implications of who would be under review should this recommendation become enacted. Will it be across all classes? Or will only women from lower-socio economic backgrounds be targeted?

As stereotypes and our national sport of bogan-bashing goes, poorer people are often depicted as drinking more than any other class in Australia. This is a particularly curious stereotype given statistical analysis shows that personal income rises, so too does alcohol consumption across both genders. (Drinking Patterns in Australia 2001-2007, Australian Institute Health and Welfare). One can’t shake the feeling these desired powers would be used almost exclusively against lower socio-economic brackets.

The more troubling aspect of this recommendation is disturbing matter of race that underpins it all. As part of the Inquiry’s aims, the Commissioner has called for recommendations to “reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the child protection system”.

So, is it a logical conclusion that the Queensland Police Union would apply these requested powers over the same over-represented community? That the focus of this would be of pregnant women of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage?

It is our indigenous communities who face the most intervention and there is no doubt there are challenges and problems for them, just as with many other Australians. But legislating against them (again) will not work, nor does the evidence show that it ever has worked.

The report from Queensland’s Child Protection Inquiry is due in April, a month before National Sorry Day. People around the country will gather to remember the apology from five years ago. It is a time when we recall the horrors suffered by Australia’s indigenous population. A population who still suffer from reduced education, health, social and economic opportunities than other Australians. A population whose children were stolen from them in an effort to make them assimilate and disappear into Australia’s population. A population targeted by the Queensland Police Union and other groups who still want to curtail their liberty and take their children.

What is the point of saying sorry if we keep trying to make the same mistake?

31 January 2013

Dr Carlos Morín, the Barcelona abortion doctor facing a possible sentence of 273 years in prison for practising almost a hundred abortions, has been absolved of all charges. Jennie Bristow discusses the circumstances and broader implications of his trial.

Another 10 defendants also faced heavy prison charges for illegal abortion, forgery, conspiracy and professional intrusion; however, the Barcelona court has ruled the abortions were carried out according to the law, and ‘with the consent and under the express request of the pregnant women’, the Spanish newspaper El País reports (1).

With this ruling, notes El País, ‘the Court of Barcelona has closed today an episode that marked a before and after in the Spanish legislation on abortion’. The Morín case attracted attention across Europe because, as the London Times reported back in 2011, ‘hundreds of women from Britain, Spain and other parts of Europe who were seeking late abortions were treated at the Ginemedex and TCB clinics in Barcelona, which were run by Dr Morín’. (2)

In Spain and beyond, the Morín case highlights some unsettling features of the legal and cultural situation surrounding abortion laws in Europe , and their implications for women and doctors. Above all the case shows how quickly, in a febrile cultural climate, countries can shift from being a haven for desperate women who could not be treated elsewhere in Europe into a hell for the doctors who helped them.


Carlos Morín’s Ginemedex clinic in Barcelona has been the focus of attention by anti-abortion groups and media organisations for several years. In 2004, the British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph conducted an undercover investigation into the practice, by the abortion provider British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), of giving women the Ginemedex clinic’s telephone number when they were too late in the gestation of their pregnancies to be given an abortion under British law. A ‘supplementary report’ published by the Sunday Telegraph one month later ‘alleged that a general practitioner based in the South Birmingham Primary Care Trust had offered to facilitate the referral of a late abortion to the same clinic’. (3)

In Britain, the maximum ‘time limit’ for abortion (except in cases of fetal anomaly or to save the mother’s life and health) is 24 weeks; and pressure on the ‘late’ abortion services at that time meant that a woman presenting for an abortion at gestations over 21 weeks could not always obtain treatment in Britain. In such circumstances, staff at BPAS would sometimes pass on to these women the telephone number of the Ginemedex clinic, where abortions were conducted up to and beyond the 24-week British limit.

The Sunday Telegraph investigations caused significant fall-out in Britain . The Chief Medical Officer (CMO) conducted a thorough investigation of practices at BPAS, and in a report published in September 2005 (3) concluded that, while some of the advice given to the undercover journalist by staff at the BPAS helpline was unacceptable and that training issues should be addressed, BPAS had not broken any laws and continued to run a good service for women needing abortions at later gestations.

The CMO noted that ‘a woman is entitled to travel to another member state of the European Union for a termination of pregnancy’, and that information received from the Catalan Health Authority at the time of writing his report indicated that ‘there is no evidence of the Spanish clinic having acted outside of Spanish abortion law’.

The CMO’s most significant conclusion, for Britain , was that the circumstances leading to women being given the number of the Spanish clinic indicated broader inadequacies in the late abortion service in Britain , where the lack of provision meant that some women were denied access to the abortions to which they would have been legally entitled. The CMO called for an inquiry in the late abortion service in Britain – to date, this has not been acted upon.

Over in Spain , the campaign against Carlos Morín continued. In 2006, a Danish TV company conducted an undercover investigation of the clinic; this prompted another inspection by the health authorities, which found nothing illegal. The ‘ultra-Catholic’ group E-Christians then lodged a complaint about Morín at the Barcelona doctors’ association, which failed. In 2007, following a legal complaint against Morín by an employee, the clinic was searched, documents confiscated, and Morín arrested.

The puzzling thing to arise from this chronology of events is, what changed between 2006 – when the health authorities were apparently satisfied with Morín’s practices – and 2007, when he was arrested and his practice shut down? Again, it is fruitless to speculate on specific details that may emerge over the course of the case. But given broader developments in the Spanish abortion law from 2007, it is necessary to look at the changing cultural, political and legal context in which the Morín case has developed.

The Spanish abortion law, 2004-2007

As things stood in 2004, abortion was permitted under Spanish law for the following reasons:

• The pregnancy is the result of rape – up to 12 weeks gestation;
• The fetus, if carried to term, will suffer from severe physical or mental defects – up to 22 weeks;
• The abortion is necessary to avoid a grave danger to the life of or the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman – no time limit. (4)

In this respect, the Spanish law was similar to the British abortion law: with the exception of rape cases, abortion was not available on request, but it put the onus on the clinician to interpret it according to the woman’s circumstances. Under British law, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks’ gestation on the grounds that the pregnancy risks damage to a women’s mental or physical health; this is interpreted broadly, so that most of those women with an unwanted pregnancy who are motivated to ask for an abortion are considered to be at risk of psychological damage if the abortion is denied.

In a similar fashion, so the Spanish law came to be interpreted in its least restrictive form, and practiced outside of the national healthcare system. As the CMO’s report noted, in Spain in 2005 ‘Nearly all abortions are carried out in private clinics and 97% of abortions are carried out under the last ground shown above. In 2003, 79,800 abortions were carried out; 1.9% of these were at 21 weeks or more.’

The CMO’s report also cited statistics from the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia about the extent of late abortions performed to women from outside Spain: ‘The article also said in 2003, that out of all the patients seen within the 26 centres in Catalunya, 812 patients were foreign and only 14 of these were from the United Kingdom overall. 98.9% of the abortions performed on foreigners were of less than 22 weeks. In three cases it was in the 24th week and in five in the 26th week.’
This detail indicates a number of key points about the legal situation in 2004:

• Abortion in Spain was legal beyond the 24-week British time limit;
• Clinical practice at the Barcelona clinic was above board, in that it was inspected and approved by the Catalunyan health authorities;
• A small proportion of the abortions carried out in Spain were at ‘late’ gestations of only 21 weeks, and an even smaller proportion were carried out beyond the UK time limit of 24 weeks;
• A very small proportion of clients had come from the UK , and most of those were being treated at gestations that were legal in the UK – but presumably, they could not access the procedure here.

In other words, there was no scandal here waiting to be uncovered. The situation in Spain was legal and accepted by the health authorities; and this provided a haven for a small proportion of women travelling from countries where abortion was either illegal or inaccessible. What suddenly seems to have changed in 2007 was not the practice in Spain , but the cultural and political climate in which abortion was provided.

The Spanish abortion law, 2007-date

In 2010, the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Voluntary Termination of Pregnancy Act became law in Spain , replacing the previous legislation. This provides for abortion on request, funded by the state, up until the fourteenth week of gestation; but it is far more restrictive of abortions carried out later on. In this regard, the new Spanish law follows a pattern established in some other European countries, where there has been a ‘trade off’ between liberalisation in the first trimester of pregnancy – abortion on request – against greater restrictions on abortions at later gestations.

The new law seems to have been greeted by abortion providers as a mixed blessing. It was provoked by the bizarre situation in 2007, where a number of abortion clinics were raided by the Guardia Civil, medical records were seized, and clinic staff arrested or investigated. Following this, 40 clinics (over half of those in Spain ) suspended their work because they could no longer guarantee the provision of the service, or the safety of their staff. The situation revealed the fragility of an unclear law in circumstances that can quickly change, and the new abortion law has the merit of clarifying to women what they are allowed to seek, and to doctors what they are allowed to perform.

But at a conference of abortion and contraception providers held in Seville , Southern Spain , in autumn 2010, Eva Rodriguez of the abortion clinics’ association ACAI showed a thought-provoking film examining the new law, and also indicating its negative side. One contributor to the film drew attention to the arbitrariness of the 14-week time limit for abortion on request – why should women be accorded less capacity to decide in week 15, or 20 of their pregnancy? There remained difficulties with the financial and practical aspects of implementing the law, including concerns about regional differences. And of course, for women – in Spain and abroad – who need abortions after 14 weeks’ gestation – things have become that much harder. (5)

This situation indicates a shifting climate of expectation around abortion in Spain . As Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, notes, ‘what has happened in Spain seems less to be a discovery of wrong-doing than a redefinition of wrong-doing’. And it is this notion of wrong-doing that needs to be discussed outside of the court, as a moral and political issue.

The demonisation of ‘late’ abortions

In recent years, and around the world, doctors conducting abortions in later gestations of pregnancy have found themselves in the news headlines, and the reaction is interesting to examine. The murder of the American Dr George Tiller in 2009 shocked those inside and outside the pro-choice movement – it is, thankfully, generally considered to be wrong to murder somebody for going about his lawful business, even if that lawful business is the controversial practice of second-trimester abortion. (6)

On the other hand, the arrest of the rogue Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell in 2010 was shocking to those on both sides of the abortion debate, because of the illegality, brutality and clinically unsound nature of his practices. Those who argue for legal abortion beyond the first trimester do so precisely to protect women – who, when desperate for an abortion, will go to any lengths to obtain one – from charlatans such as these. (7)

As a society – even one like America, which is so polarised around the abortion debate – we set great store by what is legal and clinically safe medical practice, and what is not. This is why advocates of women’s right to abortion seek to make this practice legal, so the woman and her doctors can be safe. It is why the fact that most abortions happen in the first trimester does not mean that women do not need access to abortion beyond that time – as research has amply demonstrated (8), a small proportion of women will always need access to late abortion, and the ‘right to choose’ should not just mean ‘only three months to make your mind up’.

And this is also why abortion advocates and doctors will push for women to have access to safe care to whatever gestation they possibly can within the law. If abortion providers were interested in having an easy life, they a) probably wouldn’t work in abortion services in the first place, and b) would seek to provide women with the cheapest, easiest services they possibly could, even if this meant slamming the door in the face of those women presenting with more challenging conditions or gestations. But they don’t.

The fact is, those who work in abortion services are motivated by the care of women who come to them in difficult circumstances, and it is frustrating – at times heartbreaking – when the service that is provided cannot meet these women’s needs. For this reason, the British Government’s Department of Health should get on with the task its Chief Medical Office set the country back in 2005, which was never taken up: to review women’s access to abortions in later gestations, and find ways of improving the service. (3)

In Britain , abortion is legal on broad grounds up until the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. But women are not always able to access abortions at this stage. The burden of ‘late abortion’ provision has been taken on by independent sector clinics, which cannot always accommodate women’s needs; also, delays in the care pathway can mean that by the time a woman is referred to an abortion provider, she is already too close to the gestational limit to be helped. There should be greater collaboration between independent providers and the NHS to ensure these women can be helped, and greater acceptance within the health service that women are entitled to the ‘late abortions’ that they need.

In Spain , Carlos Morín should have been able to expect fair treatment from the courts, and the open-minded support of his international colleagues in the pro-choice world. All those negotiating their way around sometimes unclear, and often changing, abortion laws in the current climate should be aware that those prepared to do the most to help women are also often the most likely to attract the ire of anti-abortion campaigners, media organisations, and politicians. In such cases, the first casualty is the woman who needs her abortion.

(1) Absuelto el doctor Morín en el caso de los abortosEl Pais, 31 January 2013
(2) Doctor charged with 101 illegal abortions. The Times ( London ), 16 September 2011
(3) An Investigation into the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) Response to Requests for Late Abortions: A report by the Chief Medical Officer. Department of Health, September 2005
(4) Summarised by An Investigation into the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) Response to Requests for Late Abortions: A report by the Chief Medical Officer. Department of Health, September 2005
(5) Achieving Excellence in Abortion Care’: Report on the ninth Congress of FIAPACAbortion Review, 25 October 2010
(6) Comment: One family’s tragedy, not a political indicator. By Jennie Bristow. Abortion Review, 2 June 2009
(7) Late abortion: the new clash in the Choice Wars. By Ann Furedi. spiked, 3 March 2011
(8) See for example Second-Trimester Abortions in England and Wales, by Roger Ingham, Ellie Lee, Steve Clements and Nicole Stone, University of Southampton 2007.


A woman has been jailed for eight years at Leeds Crown Court for obtaining an abortion at 39 weeks of pregnancy in 2009.

Sarah Catt, of Sherburn-in-Elmet, North Yorkshire is believed to have become pregnant following an affair with a colleague. She discovered she was 30 weeks pregnant following a scan at a Leeds hospital and later claimed to have had a legitimate abortion at a local clinic.

Investigation of her computer revealed however that she had purchased medication used to induce labour on the internet.

Catt, who is married with two children, told a psychiatrist she had taken the drug while her husband was away and delivered the baby boy by herself at home. She claimed the child was stillborn, but has refused to reveal the location of the body.

Catt pleaded guilty in July to administering a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage.

Evidence presented in court suggested a complex history of pregnancy and childbirth: Catt gave up a child for adoption in 1999, she later had a termination with the agreement of her husband, tried to terminate another pregnancy but missed the legal limit and concealed another pregnancy from her husband before the child’s birth.

Sentencing her to eight years in prison, the judge said Catt had made a “deliberate and calculated decision” to end her pregnancy.

Ch Insp Kerrin Smith, who led the North Yorkshire Police investigation, said “Catt has proved to be cold and calculating and has shown no remorse or given an explanation for what she did.”

Commenting on the case Abortion Rights said:

“This is a sad and unusual case and one that highlights the desperation women can feel when faced by an unwanted pregnancy and when they feel their options are closed.

The upper legal time limit for abortion in this country is 24 weeks in most cases, and while we do not condone anyone operating outside the law, the case underlines how vital it is for women to have access to safe, legal abortion as early as possible in pregnancy.

The reason why we do not see situations like this in the UK is because in the vast majority of cases women do have access to high quality abortion services and good advice on their pregnancy options.

Sarah Catt is clearly a very troubled individual, with a complex medical history. An eight year jail term in such a case is disproportionate.

Women who find themselves in what seem like impossible circumstances must be treated with understanding and compassion, and offered treatment if appropriate, not threatened with prosecution.”

RE: El Salvador: Citizen’s group called for legal action by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) as a woman accused of having an abortion died in jail. The group is further requesting a review of the case of another woman in El Salvador sentenced to 30 years in jail for seeking an abortion21 June 2012  [Posted on this listserve 17 August]

Having read this news item on the Campaign listserve a few days ago, the Central American Women’s Network in London has just informed us that there have been developments with regard to the case of Sonia Tabora, the woman jailed for 30 years – she has been freed. Here is their news release:

20 August 2012

A young woman has returned to her home in El Salvador after seven years in prison – for a miscarriage. Since the country’s stringent anti-abortion legislation was enacted in 1998, El Salvador has imprisoned 628 women accused of having a pregnancy termination. Sonia Tabora was one of them.

The Sonsonate court in El Salvador’s eastern region has recognised its mistake, following a review of Sonia’s case. The review was secured by the coordinated efforts of tens of Salvadoran civil society organisations, led by the Citizens Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic, Ethical and Eugenic Abortion. These organisations labelled the judiciary’s mistake “state violence”.

Sonia was born in Sacacoyo, a village where 40 per cent of the population live in poverty. She experienced injustice at 18 when the man who had raped her was acquitted. And Sonia also had to survive a common experience for poor women in Central America of being abandoned by her partner after becoming pregnant.

Sonia hid her pregnancy from her employers for fear of losing her job as a maid. In February 2005, during a visit to her hometown when she was seven months pregnant, she unexpectedly gave birth without help in a coffee plantation. Sonia’s sister and father found her bleeding, in shock and speechless, and took her to hospital. But a doctor there reported her to police, assuming she had provoked the abortion. Sonia was later accused of aggravated homicide and sentenced to 30 years in jail.

The coalition of groups that campaigned for Sonia’s freedom believed her trial violated legal procedures. They challenged the verdict that she had caused the abortion, which was based on a single doctor’s word, despite lack of evidence or a post-mortem on the fetus.

El Salvador has one of the most stringent bans on abortion, which allows no exception in cases of rape, incest, a threat to the woman’s life or severe fetal abnormality. Neighbouring countries – Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala – share similar legislation, though the latter two nations allow therapeutic abortion to save the woman’s life.

Anti-abortion laws not only regulate access to safe abortion, but also ban the use of the morning after pill and restrict the content of sex education.

In the Central America region 95 per cent of all abortions are unsafe, including self-induced abortion and surgery conducted by non-professionals. Unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal death, with high mortality rates of between 100 to 120 deaths per 100,000 live births.

The overwhelming majority of maternal deaths and imprisonment after abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth in El Salvador happen to illiterate women from poor, rural backgrounds – and they are primarily young women. Women like Sonia, who cannot afford a lawyer, are assigned a public attorney who, in line with a culture that penalises abortion, do not dispute the lack of evidence and only aim to reduce the sentence.

Although Sonia has been released, 24 other women remain incarcerated for miscarriage. Activists claim the outcome in Sonia’s case sets a precedent and pledge they will “continue to struggle for the freedom of other women prisoners in the country in the same circumstances”. Campaigners say a public debate has been stirred, with in-depth media analysis of the issue, and they seek to use this opportunity to overturn the strict ban on abortion.

Central America Women’s Network (CAWN)

Bei Bei Shuai took rat poison when her boyfriend left her, leading to the death of their unborn child. Now she’s facing life in prison

Ed Pilkington in Indianapolis, Wednesday 30 May 2012 18.36 BST

Link to this video

When her baby Angel died in her arms at 1.30am on 3 January 2011, Bei Bei Shuai was so distraught she was instantly transferred to the mental health wing of the Methodist hospital in Indianapolis. Grief stricken and under heavy sedation, she was unaware that within half an hour of her baby’s death a detective from the city’s homicide branch had arrived at the maternity ward and had begun asking questions.

While Shuai was embarking on a journey into bereavement that continues to this day, the Indianapolis authorities were also setting out, albeit along a very different path. On 14 March last year Shuai was arrested and taken into custody in the high-security Marion County prison, where she was held for the next 435 days, charged with murdering her foetus and attempted feticide. If convicted of the murder count she faces a sentence of 45 years to life.

Bei Bei Shuai is at the sharp end of the creeping criminalisation of pregnancy across America. Women who lose their unborn babies – whether in cases of maternal drug addiction or in Shuai’s case a failed suicide attempt – are increasingly finding themselves accused of murder.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Shuai told the Guardian she is determined to defend herself as she prepares for a murder trial scheduled for December. “I have a strong desire to stay in America,” she said, three days after she had been released from jail on $50,000 bail. “I want to stay and fight this case. I have the best legal team, and I’m not afraid anymore to face the charges.”

On 23 December 2010 Shuai became so depressed after she had been abandoned by her boyfriend – a married Chinese man who broke his promise to set up a family with her – that she decided to end her life. She consumed rat poison, and after confessing to friends was rushed to the Methodist hospital.

Doctors took steps to save her, but on 31 December there were signs that the baby, then at 33 weeks gestation, was in distress and a Caesarian was performed. On the second day of Angel’s life the baby was found to have a massive brain haemorrhage and on 2 January was taken off life support.

Shuai held Angel for five hours as the baby gradually faded and died. “Why do they want to take my baby away?” she kept asking, in between bouts of fainting. Shuai begged for her own life to be taken so that her child’s might be spared.

“There is no doubt that Shuai was suffering from a severe mental illness,” her defence lawyer Linda Pence said. She first met the defendant when she was in the mental wing, a few days after Angel died. “I personally observed a very depressed woman, a grief-stricken individual.”

That is not how the prosecutor saw it. For the first time in Indiana‘s 196-year history, the state has applied felony charges against a woman that hold Shuai criminally liable for the outcome of her pregnancy. Earlier this month the Indiana supreme court declined to hear the case, rendering a 3 December murder trial almost inevitable.

Lawyers and women’s advocates in Indiana were astonished by the prosecution’s hard line. To attempt to take one’s own life is not a crime in Indiana, so the decision to charge a pregnant woman appeared to be creating a double standard.

The feticide law, introduced in Indiana in 1979, was designed with violent third parties in mind: abusive boyfriends or husbands who attacked their pregnant partners, causing them to lose their unborn babies. It was enhanced to carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in 2007 after a bank robbery in which a pregnant woman was shot in the stomach, killing her fetus but leaving her alive.

“From a legal standpoint, this case is absolutely frightening,” said Pence, who has set up a website and fighting fund to support Shuai’s defence.

Pence fears that Shuai’s prosecution could set a precedent that will catch others in its trap. In the future, could women who smoke or drink during pregnancy and suffer a miscarriage be prosecuted for murder, or women with HIV who pass it on to their child in the womb? “No one wins from the criminalisation of pregnant women – all this will do is persuade women to flee the state, avoid treatment or have an abortion,” Pence said.

Shuai sees the threat now facing her from a different perspective – as the obliteration of her American dream. She was raised as a single child in Shanghai by parents she described as loving and caring. She graduated from Shanghai university as an accountant, worked for a year in a Chinese government department and then came to the US about 10 years ago as a legal immigrant with her then-husband, who was offered a job in Indianapolis as a mechanical engineer.

Shuai said she was delighted to come to the US. “I knew America as the best country in the world, with the best education system. People get more freedom. I really wanted to see what it was like.”

She found the initial arrival in her Indiana town – a tiny one compared to Shanghai – a bit of a culture shock, but over time she said she came to appreciate it more and more: “Seeing all the natural trees and flowers, the fresh air.”

She was full of dreams – the dream of continuing her studies, the dream of forming her own family, of owning a house and car. “Everybody tells me that they have their American dream, trying to make their life better. People tell me that all the time, and I am the same, I am one of them,” she said.

The dreams didn’t work out so easily. She couldn’t afford to go back to college, so instead studied under her own steam using the local library. Her marriage collapsed, and then when she did finally become pregnant it was with a married man.

When he abandoned her, he left Shuai on her hands and knees in a parking lot as he drove away.

Shuai is not allowed to discuss the events that led up to her suicide attempt, as that might prejudice her trial. But she can talk about the deep sense of shame she felt when she was arrested for killing her foetus.

“I remember the day I had to turn myself in. I felt hopeless and ashamed, for myself and my parents. I had never worn handcuffs before – when they put the cuffs on me it chilled me to my bones.”

Now released, her hands are free. But she is forced to wear a GPS ankle bracelet that is causing her feet to swell.

Shuai’s lawyers wonder whether it is coincidental that such an aggressive application of a law originally designed to protect pregnant women against violent men should first be applied against a woman who is Chinese. The question is all the more pertinent given the current spat between the US and Chinese governments over the treatment of the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Lynn Paltrow, head of National Advocates for Pregnant Women that is co-counsel in Shuai’s defence, said: “It’s an irony that the US has paid such close attention to violations of human rights in China while at the same time Indiana has absolutely deprived a woman who is a legal immigrant from China of her constitutional human rights.”

The only hope for Shuai to avoid a murder trial is if the prosecutor, Terry Curry, decides to drop the charges. There is little chance of that, given his firm belief that he is following the correct path.

“It’s my job to enforce the criminal code as enacted by our legislature and that’s what our legislature has determined,” he said. Curry pointed to a suicide note that Shuai left the former boyfriend in which she wrote that she was “taking this baby with me”.

“What we allege is that her actions were directed specifically at the unborn child. It’s not that she was trying to take her own life, it was that she was trying to take the life of her foetus,” Curry said.

Curry’s determination to press ahead to trial is matched by Shuai’s determination to fight on. During her year in prison, she has improved her English language skills and now speaks fluently without a translator. Though there were dark times inside, including anxiety attacks and moments of despair, she said she has emerged stronger for it.

“It was a really bad experience. I thought nobody would care about me anymore, that I was a worthless person with no future,” she said. “But I learned a great deal. I learned that my life wasn’t the worst as I thought it was. Everything that has happened has made me think that I am so blessed. I have a second family here, and that gives me hope.”

Shuai kept the truth about her suicide attempt and prosecution for murder from her mother back in Shanghai for almost a year. But a couple of months ago, with the help of her lawyer, she finally confessed.

“My mother was so wonderful and supportive. She told me you don’t need to care about other people’s judgment, as she knew that was what hurt me most. There’s a Chinese saying: ‘A people’s mouth can be sharper than a knife.'”

Despite her ordeal, Shuai insists she remains dogged in her intention to make a life for herself in America, a country that she still regards as the greatest on Earth. But in the last analysis her decision to stay and protest her innocence is made on behalf of only one person.

“I want to prove to my daughter that her mother is not a murderer, and that she has been loved.”