Police have charged one woman from Central California with murder after she gave birth to a stillborn baby with toxic amounts of methamphetamine in his system.
Chelsea Becker, 25, of Hanford, CA, was eight and a half months pregnant when she gave birth to a stillborn baby at a local hospital. Staff members became concerned that the baby may have drugs in his system. They alerted the authorities, which triggered an official autopsy. The investigation revealed the child had methamphetamine in his system five times the amount considered to be toxic. The coroner ruled the death a homicide.
Now, Becker is being held in prison on $5 million bail, but critics say pregnant women are being prosecuted under laws that were never supposed to apply to them.
After the autopsy, police discovered that Becker has had three previous children, all born with toxic levels of methamphetamine in their systems. Those children were removed from her custody. Becker also admitted to using the drug at least three days before she gave birth to the stillborn baby, according to investigators.
But legal experts say the state’s homicide laws aren’t meant to prosecute women that give birth to stillborn babies. Prosecuting mothers and pregnant women remains rare in California, but Becker’s case shows these women are still at risk of prosecution.
The state’s penal code defines murder as the unlawful killing of a human being or unborn child. The code was revised in 1970 to include the word fetus.
However, the state Supreme Court amended the law again when it overturned the conviction of a man who had been charged with murder for beating his wife and killing her unborn child. The court ruled that the penal code did not warrant a homicide conviction resulting from the death of a fetus.
The changes were meant to protect domestic abuse victims, women that give birth to stillborn children, and women seeking an abortion.
“At the time, there were feminist organizations and others that were assured by legislators that these laws would never be applied to pregnant women,” says Michele Goodwin, a law professor at UC Irvine.
It was more common for pregnant women using drugs to be charged with homicide for killing their own children during the drug war of the 1980s and 90s.
But women’s rights advocates say pregnant women are once again becoming the target of prosecution.
“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.
According to Paltrow’s organization, 413 women across 44 states and the District of Columbia were arrested or detained for reasons related to pregnancy from 1972 to 2005, she said. About 84% of them involved drug use. In the 14 years since, she estimates there have been about 900 additional cases.
But she notes that most of the charges were either overturned or did not lead to conviction, primarily because it is difficult to determine what causes a miscarriage or stillbirth.
“No woman can guarantee a healthy birth outcome,” she said. “That’s a medical impossibility.”
Philip Esbenshade, the district attorney overseeing Becker’s case, said that the department is aware of these 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.”
Another woman from Hanford, Andrea Perez, then 29, was charged with murder in 2018 after her baby was born stillborn. Providers at Adventist Health Hanford hospital called the coroner because the baby’s placenta had detached from the uterine lining, court documents show. Records indicate that the condition is common in mothers who habitually use methamphetamine; other risk factors include high blood pressure, smoking, abdominal trauma, and certain infections.
The doctor treating Perez said that the baby had likely died 12 to 18 hours before she gave birth. Perez admitted using methamphetamine two days beforehand.
She pleaded no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea agreement. But she tried to withdraw her plea about a month later, 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 motion was denied, and Perez is currently serving an 11-year sentence at a correctional 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.”
Prosecutors said it’s not surprising that these cases took place in a small town just a few years apart considering the amount of discretion local DA offices have in terms of bringing charges.
“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,” said Jody Armour, a law professor at USC.
“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.”