The Limits of Autonomy: Why Is Bei Bei Shuai Still In Prison?

“Do I deserve credit for not having tried suicide – or am I afraid the exotic act will make me blunder?” – Robert Lowell, Suicide

Last Wednesday, thirty-four year old Bei Bei Shuai sat in jail in Marion County, Indiana, finishing her first  full year in prison. It hadn’t always been like this. Shuai had once been like many women in America, and was working hard at the Chinese restaurant that she and her then-boyfriend, Zhiliang Guan, ran together.  She was eight months pregnant and looking forward to building a family, getting married, and building a life with someone. Things were okay.

And then it all changed.

In December 2010, Guan informed Shuai that he was actually married, with a family, and that he was returning to them in China. Shuai responded as many might have: she became distraught, cried, and pleaded with her soon-to-be husband and father of her unborn child, to stay. Depressed and eventually suffering an emotional breakdown, Shuai, in an act of desperation, swallowed rat poison, leaving behind an intended suicide note that explained that she wanted to kill herself. Only, she didn’t succeed.  A friend of Shuai’s happened to find her, rushing her to the hospital where she was treated and prematurely gave birth to her daughter. Her baby died four days later, leaving Shuai to suffer another breakdown, leading to another month in a psychiatric ward. Her lawyer, Linda Pence, present at the final moments of Shuia’s baby’s life, recalled the last words Shuai screamed, “Why couldn’t I die? Why did they have to take my baby?”

In the midst of all this, in March 2011, Bei Bei Shuai was arrested and charged with murder and attempted suicide and is currently facing life in prison.

What happened?

Committing suicide is not a crime in Indiana and certainly depression rates among pregnant women are not rare. According to a study from the Georgia Health Sciences University, the leading causes of death in pregnant and postpartum women is both homicide and suicide. Another analysis by the Centers for Disease Control’s violent death report notes that, “the pregnancy-associated suicide rate is 2.0 per 100,000 live births. The pregnancy-associated homicide rate is 2.9 per 100,000 live births. The collective violent death rate is 4.9 deaths per 100,000 live births.” 10-20% of women suffer depression during their pregnancy, most often set off by traumatic events such as death or a partner leaving. Yet despite all these circumstances, newly elected Democratic prosecutor Terry Curry brought the harshest charges against Shuai.

“She attempted suicide and that resulted in the death of a fetus that was born and lived for a few days and then died”¦ she’s being charged with the crime against the viable fetus, and the child that was born, and not against herself,” said Marion Country Chief Trial Deputy David Rimstidt, when he spoke with Jennifer Block at the Daily Beast.  In what seems to be an incredibly twisted version of what feticide and murder actually legally mean, Bei Bei Shuai has now become the poster child of what happens to pregnant women in America when they act outside the limits of their pregnancy, basically making good on the threat that if a woman happens to be mentally ill, suicidal, or even depressed during her pregnancy, she could be charged with one of many crimes.

The frightening part of these laws is that while the majority were created to protect pregnant women from violence, they are now being used against the women they aim to protect with every charge from attempted murder, to murder, to “child abuse” while pregnant, to court-ordered hospitalization and cesarean sections. With the rise of personhood amendments in more and more states, a staunch and extremely conservative pro-life agenda is being used to interpret the laws, calling for legal structure that that views the “fetus” as a entire human that is at once separated from the mother, as well as one that is dependent on their autonomy. This results in a bias against the women who physically carry said fetuses, that have more rights than themselves. It brings an even darker view to those pregnancies that do end in miscarriages, which according to the American Pregnancy Association, occur in 15 to 20% of women, rising higher with maternal age and environment. This doesn’t even begin to cover the consequences of even more undesirable circumstances like perinatal death, stillbirth, spontaneous intrauterine death, or other forms of fetal death.

The question now is, what type of environment does this create for others who are depressed or suicidal? With statistics like the ones above, we would have to be kidding ourselves to think that every woman goes through pregnancy with a rosy grin on her face. But with “unborn victim” laws popping up in multiple states, declaring that “fetuses, embryos, and possibly fertilized eggs” are considered separate victims, one has to wonder how far the law can stretch in a time of hyper-social conservativeness towards women’s autonomy, as well as doctor-patient confidentiality goes (see the 2003 “Prenatal Protection Act” which was originally intended to report pregnant women who were addicted to illegal drugs. Instead, women were turned over by their doctors for giving “drugs” to “minors” in cases that involved everything from anti-depressants to Advil).

Of course, the main difference here is that Shuai attempted to end her life, including that of the child inside her, which may leave many at unease with her situation. But is it really better to imprison a woman whose intention was to kill herself while pregnant, an action that can often indicate mental illness, rather than allow her to seek psychiatric treatment? What is the goal of imprisoning Shuai other than to make an example of what happens if women cross a line that many are not willing to understand in the name of “protecting unborn children”? Moreover, what does this mean for every woman in the future, whether dealing with addiction or some form of mental illness, and where they will go when in desperate need of help? Will they be too scared to seek medical treatment for fear of imprisonment and instead lay helpless in the face of those problems?

It is a frightening undertone for many women across America who are not only at odds with current attacks on their own personhood and right to choose when to start a family, but also what it exactly means when they are pregnant and where their rights of autonomy extend. But it also stretches beyond a medical situation, where health problems can and will be treated, and into a potential situation for arrest due to the harshest interpretation of these types of laws. Instead of giving proper help, we instead imprison women. Never mind how that hurts their health.

So for now, as Bei Bei Shuai still sits in prison, creeping past her year anniversary of that sentence, American women watch as law after law is passed, wondering, which one of us might be next?

3 thoughts on “The Limits of Autonomy: Why Is Bei Bei Shuai Still In Prison?”

  1. I feel that she is being treated no differently than the thousands of other mentally ill people who are given punitive sentences and not psychiatric treatment, despite one being much more effective for society than the other. Despite one being desperately needed. The pregnancy makes it a gender issue and only complicates things, but the heart of the matter is that a mentally ill person is being treated as if she was mentally competent at the time that she tried to commit suicide, knowing that it would end her pregnancy. She wasn’t mentally competent.

    That’s wrong. That’s what makes this case so appalling to me. Not the fact that she is being charged with murder, because she was pregnant. Maybe that makes me a bad feminist, but I don’t feel like this is really a gender issue. This is an issue that speaks to the heart of the problems with our judicial system, in my opinion.

Leave a Reply