California Supreme Court allows murder charge after fetus stillborn

The California Supreme Court declined to stop the prosecution of a woman who was charged with murder after authorities said she used methamphetamine before her fetus was stillborn.

The court on Wednesday rejected a challenge of the charge by state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office normally represents county prosecutors when their cases are appealed, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday.

However, Becerra, nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is a supporter of reproductive rights and in a letter to justices said fear of prosecution might prevent pregnant women from seeking addiction services. The case could also prompt extra scrutiny by law enforcement on miscarriages and stillbirths, he said.

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Chelsea Becker of Hanford has remained in custody on $2 million bail since the 2019 stillbirth. Police say methamphetamine was found in the fetus and that Becker, who was 8½ months pregnant at the time of the stillbirth, acknowledged using the drug. Becker, 26, has pleaded not guilty.

Supporters say substance use disorder is a medical condition, not a crime, and that there is not enough evidence to say methamphetamine use causes stillbirths.

Newborn girl baby inside incubator in hospital post delivery room with identification bracelet tag name

Philip Esbenshade, executive assistant to Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes, said the law authorizes a murder charge for "the reckless or indifferent unlawful conduct of a mother that results in the unlawful death of her fetus."

"This is not a case about abortion nor women’s reproductive rights," he told the Chronicle. "This is a case about a person who did specific acts that resulted in the death of a viable fetus."

The 1970 California law allowing a murder charge does not say whether the pregnant woman herself can be charged. But it lists circumstances that would bar prosecution, including legal abortion, medical intervention to save the woman’s life, or any act that was "solicited, aided, abetted or consented to by the mother of the fetus."