Congresswoman Nikema Williams and Dem Women’s Caucus Lead Democrats in Urging Biden Administration to Protect Against Criminalization of Pregnancy and Pregnancy Outcomes

Feb 02, 2024
Press

(WASHINGTON) —  Today, Democratic Women’s Caucus (DWC) Co-Vice Chair Nikema Williams (GA-05), alongside DWC White House Liaison Rep. Joyce Beatty (OH-03) Chair Lois Frankel (FL-22), and Co-Vice Chair Teresa Leger Fernández (NM-03) led over 100 House Democratic colleagues in urging the Biden-Harris Administration to protect Americans from the criminalization of their pregnancies and pregnancy outcomes, in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

The members wrote in the letter:  

“We write to bring to your attention the longstanding pattern of criminalization of people on the basis of their pregnancies and pregnancy outcomes that has intensified in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

“We urge you to provide all legal and medical support available within your respective authorities to prevent the criminalization of pregnancies and pregnancy outcomes.”

The letter specifically calls on the White House, Department of Justice, and Department of Health and Human Services to: 

  • Investigate any prosecutions of people’s pregnancy or pregnancy outcomes as an unlawful form of sex discrimination, which includes discrimination on the basis of pregnancy;
  • Make clear hospital and medical staff’s obligations to maintain patient privacy and investigate any potential violations of that privacy;
  • Enforce Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination in health care, against any federally-funded health care provider whose staff improperly report patients pregnancies or pregnancy outcomes to law enforcement.

The letter comes amidst a growing pattern of women facing criminal charges related to their pregnancies and pregnancy outcomes, including Brittany Watts, an Ohio woman who was unjustly charged with a felony crime related to her miscarriage late last year. This alarming pattern, which disproportionately targets people of color, risks deterring people from accessing essential health care unless decisive action is taken. 

The members continued:

“When individuals like Ms. Watts cannot seek medical care for pregnancy-related conditions without fear of discrimination and criminalization, our health care system and our justice system have failed. Systemic racism, implicit bias, unequal access to quality care, and inequities in social determinants of health have facilitated a system where women of color are more likely to experience pregnancy complications and be punished more often for seeking health care.”

The letter has been endorsed by: National Women’s Law Center, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Center for Reproductive Rights, Physicians for Reproductive Health, If/When/How, Pregnancy Justice, In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda.

Rachana Desai Martin, Chief Government and External Relations Officer, Center for Reproductive Rights said: 

“Because of state abortion bans, we are seeing more and more people criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes. Unfortunately, without any federal interventions, we will continue to see patient stories, like Ms. Watts, particularly among people of color and people with lower incomes/ We are grateful to Rep. Beatty, Rep. Frankel, Rep. Leger Fernández, Rep. Williams, and the Democratic Women’s Caucus for urging the Administration to take immediate action on this important issue.”

If/When/How Senior Counsel and Legal Director Farah Diaz-Tello said:

“Stories like Ms. Watts’ show us that depending on who you are, police and healthcare providers treat some losses as a tragedy and others as a crime. For years we have defended people criminalized for their pregnancy outcome with nearly identical stories: after their pregnancy ends, they reach out to a health care provider, who, instead of providing them the care they have sought, reports them to the police and turns their life upside down. Right now, people across the country are facing the same dehumanizing treatment Ms. Watts has, even though no one should. That’s why it’s essential for the administration to ensure health care providers know their first obligation is to their patient’s health and privacy, not acting as an arm of law enforcement.”

Pregnancy Justice President Lourdes A. Rivera said:

“Decades of defending people facing pregnancy-related charges teaches us that Ms. Watts is not alone in her painful and dehumanizing experience. Time and again, the health care and criminal legal systems have stereotyped and singled out women of color and poor women for shame, blame, intimidation, and criminalization. No pregnancy outcome should ever be criminalized, and we must do everything in our power to support and uplift the personhood, dignity, and rights of pregnant people.”

Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America said:

“Make no mistake: the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes, including abortion, put pregnant people — especially Black, Latino, and Indigenous folks — in grave danger. Brittany Watts’ story is an example of the heartbreaking consequences and terrifying confusion that’s created when anti-abortion politicians strip people of their freedom, criminalize essential health care, and try to come between patients and their providers. We are grateful to Reps. Beatty, Frankel, Leger-Fernández, and Williams for their leadership on this issue, and we look forward to working with our leaders to end pregnancy criminalization. Miscarriage is common. Abortion is common. And no one should be criminalized for how their pregnancy ends.”

Gretchen Borchelt, Vice President for Reproductive Rights & Health at the National Women’s Law Center said: 

“Since the Supreme Court illegitimately overturned Roe v. Wade, people nationwide are suffering the fallout of abortion bans and escalating attacks on their rights, dignity, security, and privacy. We’re now seeing an alarming rise in the criminalization of people for their pregnancy outcomes – including having an abortion or experiencing a miscarriage. These unjust practices punish pregnant people and delay necessary care, and disproportionately target communities of color and people with low incomes. We appreciate Rep. Beatty and the Democratic Women’s Caucus, including Rep. Frankel, Rep. Leger-Fernández, and Rep. Nikema Williams for leading on this effort, and we look forward to working with the Biden Administration as they continue to address this ongoing crisis.”

Read the full letter below and HERE.

President Joseph R. Biden 

The White House 

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW  

Washington, DC 20500  

The Honorable Merrick B. Garland 

Attorney General 

United States Department of Justice  

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW 

Washington, DC 20530 

 The Honorable Xavier Becerra 

Secretary 

United States Department of Health and Human Services  

200 Independence Avenue, SW 

Washington, DC 20201 

Dear President Biden, Attorney General Garland, and Secretary Becerra:

We write to bring to your attention the longstanding pattern of criminalization of people on the basis of their pregnancies and pregnancy outcomes that has intensified in the wake of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. One alarming example of this was the case of Brittany Watts, an Ohio woman who was unjustly charged with a crime related to her miscarriage. While a grand jury refused to move the case forward, irreparable harm has already been done and we must ensure this never happens to anyone again. We urge you to provide all legal and medical support available within your respective authorities to prevent the criminalization of pregnancies and pregnancy outcomes.  

Brittany Watts, like thousands of other people across the country each year, miscarried at her home. When she sought follow-up care at a hospital, the hospital staff reported her to the police. Her experience is all too common for Black women, who disproportionately experience adverse pregnancy outcomes due to inadequate health care, and disproportionately experience disrespect, abuse, and punitive responses when they seek pregnancy-related care. Instead of being given the care and support that any person who has experienced a miscarriage deserves, Ms. Watts was interrogated by law enforcement and had her home invaded by the police. She was then arrested and wrongly charged with abuse of a corpse, a fifth-degree felony in Ohio punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. While the grand jury ultimately refused to allow a case against her to proceed, the fact that Ms. Watts faced degrading law enforcement interrogation and that such a case was even brought forward at all is alarming and cruel.

It is also part of a larger pattern of people subjected to criminal investigations and arrests, civil penalties, loss of custody of children, and reputational harm related to their pregnancy or their pregnancy outcome.  These punitive efforts disproportionately target Black and Indigenous people, other people of color, and women with low incomes. The Dobbs decision has only escalated efforts to charge people with crimes related to their pregnancies, and we are deeply concerned about this sharp increase in the criminalization of pregnant people – all of whom deserve the right to control their own bodies, lives, and futures.  

When individuals like Ms. Watts cannot seek medical care for pregnancy-related conditions without fear of discrimination and criminalization, our health care system and our justice system have failed. Systemic racism, implicit bias, unequal access to quality care, and inequities in social determinants of health have facilitated a system where women of color are more likely to experience pregnancy complications and be punished more often for seeking health care. Moreover, the normalization of this alarming pattern will only reinforce the justified fear of discrimination and criminalization that many pregnant people already feel when making decisions about their health and will deter people from accessing essential health care. 

We urge you to use your authority, and all existing remedies at your Departments’ disposal, to provide direct public educational, financial, and legal services support to any person who experiences or is threatened with pregnancy criminalization, and to interrupt that criminalization before it occurs and remedy its aftermath by taking these additional steps: 

  • Investigating any prosecutions of people with pregnancy-related conditions as unlawful under federal statutes that prohibit discrimination by law enforcement on the basis of sex, including on the basis of pregnancy; 
  • Reiterating hospital and medical staff obligations to maintain patient privacy under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, investigating when there is evidence that patient privacy has been breached, and pursuing appropriate legal remedies against violators; and
  • Enforcing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination in health care on the basis of sex, including on the basis of pregnancy, against federally-funded health care entities whose personnel improperly report to law enforcement when patients miscarry, terminate a pregnancy, or seek other pregnancy-related care.

As some states seek to increase criminal investigations of pregnancy outcomes like miscarriages and stillbirths, we must work to ensure that all people have access to the medical care and legal protections afforded to them under federal law. We appreciate your ongoing commitment to defending the rights of all people who seek reproductive health care and the actions that the Biden-Harris Administration has taken to protect access to reproductive health care after Dobbs. 

Thank you in advance for considering this request, and we look forward to your timely response.  

CONTACT: PressGA05@mail.house.gov 

Congresswoman Nikema Williams proudly serves Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District on the exclusive Financial Services Committee. She is a champion of voting rights and builds on the Fifth District’s legacy as the cradle of the civil rights movement as co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus. Congresswoman Williams is committed to closing the racial wealth gap and ensuring the promise of America for all–regardless of your ZIP code or bank account.

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