A Central California woman has been charged with murder after giving birth to a stillborn baby boy with toxic amounts of methamphetamine in his system, sparking concern among some who say that pregnant women are being prosecuted under laws that were never intended to apply to them.
Chelsea Becker, 25, of Hanford, was arrested Wednesday and is being held at Kings County Jail, with bail set at $5 million.
Becker was about 8½ months pregnant when she delivered the stillborn baby at a hospital Sept. 10, according to the Hanford Police Department. Hospital staffers became suspicious that the baby might have been exposed to drugs, prompting the county coroner’s office to conduct an autopsy, police said.
According to autopsy reports, the amount of methamphetamine in the child’s system was more than five times the level that would be considered toxic, police said. The coroner’s office ruled the death a homicide.
Investigators learned that Becker had given birth to three other children with methamphetamine in their systems, police said. Those children were removed from her custody. Becker also admitted to using the drug as late as three days before she gave birth to the stillborn infant, according to investigators.
Becker was arraigned Wednesday and pleaded not guilty. She’s next due in court Nov. 19 for a pretrial conference and the setting of a preliminary hearing.
Legal experts and women’s rights advocates say such prosecutions are increasing but still remain relatively rare in California.
The state’s penal code has defined murder as the unlawful killing of a human being or unborn child. The statute was amended to include the word “fetus” in 1970.
Legislators made the change after the state Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Stockton man who had been charged with murder for beating his estranged wife and killing her unborn child. The court had ruled that the state penal code did not provide for a homicide conviction arising from the death of a fetus.
The change was intended to strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence, not to be applied to women seeking abortions or those who suffer miscarriages or stillbirths, said Michele Goodwin, a law professor at UC Irvine and author of the forthcoming book “Policing the Womb.”
“At the time, there were feminist organizations and others that were assured by legislators that these laws would never be applied to pregnant women,” Goodwin said.
But as the drug war ramped up in the 1980s and ‘90s, it became more common for prosecutors to use such laws to charge women with killing their own unborn children, particularly when narcotics were involved, she said.
“We are seeing an increasing number of women who are arrested for experiencing miscarriages and stillbirths,” said Lynn M. Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
Between 1972 and 2005, Paltrow’s organization documented 413 cases in 44 states and the District of Columbia in which women were arrested or detained for reasons related to pregnancy, she said. About 84% of them involved drug use. In the 14 years since, she estimates there have been about 900 additional cases.
Many of the cases either did not result in a conviction or were overturned, she said, in part because it’s difficult to prove what causes a miscarriage or stillbirth.
“No woman can guarantee a healthy birth outcome,” she said. “That’s a medical impossibility.”
Philip Esbenshade, an assistant district attorney in Kings County, said the D.A.'s office is aware of legal experts’ concerns.
“As prosecutors, we follow the law,” he said in an email. “Taking into account the totality of the circumstances, including the investigation, Ms. Becker’s prior history with the courts and drug treatment and the forensic pathologist’s findings, we feel that the charge filed is appropriate under California law.”
But state courts have dismissed similar cases in the past.
Rosann Juarigue, 36, of Gilroy was charged with murder in San Benito County in 1992 after her stillborn baby’s death was attributed by authorities to cocaine use. The case was reported as the first attempt in California to prosecute a woman for murder on grounds she had recklessly ingested illegal drugs that led to her child’s death.
A judge dismissed the charges months later, ruling that the murder statute did not clearly authorize them and noting there was no evidence the Legislature intended the law be used in such circumstances.
The following year, Lynda Jones, 36, was charged with murder in Siskiyou County after she gave birth prematurely and the infant died. Authorities said that methamphetamine use caused the premature birth.
A motion to dismiss that case was granted about a year later.
Still, some women have ended up serving jail terms in the death of their stillborn infants.
Another Hanford woman — Adora Perez, then 29 — was charged with murder in January 2018 after delivering a stillborn baby. Staffers at Adventist Health Hanford hospital called the coroner because the baby’s placenta had detached from the uterine lining, court documents state. The documents note that the condition is common in mothers who habitually use methamphetamine; other risk factors include high blood pressure, smoking, abdominal trauma and certain infections.
A doctor estimated that the child had died 12 to 18 hours earlier. Perez eventually admitted to using meth about two days before the birth, records show.
She pleaded no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea agreement. About a month later, she tried to withdraw her plea, saying she hadn’t understood what she was doing and that her court-appointed attorney had neither investigated her baby’s death nor discussed any potential defenses with her.
The court denied the motion, and Perez is now serving an 11-year sentence at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
“What prosecutors do is they pressure these women to take plea deals,” Goodwin said. “They start high and then try to win convictions.”
The fact that both Becker’s and Perez’s cases took place in the same town less than two years apart is not surprising, legal experts say. Such prosecutions tend to cluster because of the amount of discretion involved in bringing these types of charges, said Jody Armour, a law professor at USC.
“It becomes a question of whether you as a prosecutor think that it’s appropriate to treat a woman who has a drug addiction problem as having enough agency and choice to act at that level of extreme indifference to the well-being of her unborn child,” Armour said.
“I think a lot of people might be reluctant to go there, but some might not. And apparently this prosecutor is one of those who is willing to attribute that level of subjective culpability and blameworthiness to an addicted mother with respect to her own unborn child.”