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February 02, 2024

Rep. Schiff, Democratic Women’s Caucus Urge President Biden to Protect Americans from the Criminalization of their Pregnancies and Pregnancy Outcomes

Washington, D.C.— Today, Democratic Women’s Caucus (DWC) White House Liaison Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Chair Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), and Vice Chairs Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) and Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) led Representative Schiff (D-Calif.) and over 150 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. 

“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,” wrote the members in a letter.

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

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

  • Investigate any prosecutions of 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. 

“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,” wrote the Members. “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.

“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,” said Gretchen Borchelt, Vice President for Reproductive Rights & Health at the National Women’s Law Center. “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."

“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,” said Rachana Desai Martin, Chief Government and External Relations Officer, Center for Reproductive Rights. “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.”

“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," said If/When/How Senior Counsel and Legal Director Farah Diaz-Tello. “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.”

"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," said Pregnancy Justice President Lourdes A. Rivera. "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."

“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,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO, Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"At a time when abortion care is continually under attack, it is heartening to see Congressional leadership towards protecting pregnant people, no matter their pregnancy outcomes. Across the country, we’ve seen pregnant people shamed, targeted, stigmatized, and criminalized for giving birth, experiencing a miscarriage, and having abortions. As a physician, I cannot over emphasize how dangerous this is for individuals, families, and communities.  No matter who they are or what they're experiencing, people seeking abortion care, miscarriage care, and birth care deserve the highest quality medical treatment based on their individual needs and health circumstances. No one should fear arrest or prosecution for seeking medical care. Medical standards, not politicians, judges, or police, should guide health care,” said Dr. Jamila Perritt, President & CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health and ob/gyn in DC.

“In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda applauds Democratic Women's Caucus leaders for bringing attention to the concerning pattern of the criminalization of people based on pregnancy outcomes since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health decision. Abortion restrictions have a far-reaching impact on the safety of reproductive health care, specifically for Black women, girls, and gender-expansive people. Black women, like Brittany Watts, deserve to receive timely, comprehensive, and safe miscarriage care without the threat of criminalization. We support this letter and the ongoing work of the caucus and administration to protect our bodily autonomy,” said Regina Davis Moss, PhD, MPH MCHES, President and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda.

Read the full letter HERE.