Ohio woman will not face criminal charges following miscarriage

Brittany Watts, a 34-year-old woman from Ohio, found herself at the center of a controversial legal battle and faced potential indictment for a fifth-degree felony of “abuse of a corpse” after miscarrying a nonviable fetus at home. Watts’ arrest in October 2023 sent shockwaves through the reproductive rights movement, raising questions about the implications of such charges. Legal experts and advocates worry that this interpretation of the law could have a chilling effect on women seeking medical care during miscarriages, sparking a broader debate on reproductive rights in Ohio. Watts could have faced up to a year in prison, despite records confirming a spontaneous miscarriage. Fortunately, the on January 11th, a grand jury decided that Watts will not face criminal charges.  

Watts was 21 weeks and five days pregnant when admitted to the hospital due to complications including vaginal bleeding and her water breaking prematurely. The hospital ethics panel debated for 8 hours over whether it was legal to induce her pregnancy since she was so close to the 22 week cut off point for abortion. Patients that do not receive treatment for a premature water breakage are at risk of developing sepsis, which is deadly. Watts left the hospital twice without treatment, eventually miscarrying the fetus at home. When she went back to the hospital, a nurse called the police, leading to her arrest and the charge of abuse of a corpse.

The law that was in question, adopted in 1996, prohibits the mistreatment of a human corpse in a way that “outrages family or community sensibilities.” Legal experts argued that the fetus, which died in utero, may not legally be considered a human corpse, challenging the grounds for prosecution. According to Watt’s attorney, Ohio law does not require fetal remains from miscarriages to be buried or cremated. 

This case unfolded against the backdrop of recent changes in Ohio’s abortion laws, with voters enshrining the right to abortion until the point of fetal viability at 22 weeks last November. Reproductive rights advocates feared the case could set a precedent for criminalizing miscarriages and other pregnancy outcomes. The prosecution contended it is duty-bound to follow Ohio law, while critics called for the dismissal of what they consider an unwarranted charge. While awaiting the grand jury’s decision, public pressure was increasing against the unusual interpretation of the law.

Watts, along with reproductive rights advocates across the country, celebrated when the charges were dropped, but a harsh lesson has been learned — the overturn of Roe v. Wade has made it alarmingly easy for pregnant people to face criminal charges.

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