On December 24, 2020, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article that included incorrect and dangerously misleading information about a recent California Supreme Court order in Chelsea Becker’s case. The article erroneously reported, “Court refuses to bar woman’s murder prosecution for death of fetus, a loss for Becerra.” That headline as well as statements in the story itself are simply wrong. The California Supreme Court DID NOT rule substantively on whether California’s murder law can be used to punish women who have stillbirths.
Nevertheless, the erroneous information from the San Francisco Chronicle was repeated by the Associated Press and then picked up in numerous additional papers across the country. These included the Los Angeles Times that had otherwise been providing excellent, detailed coverage of Ms. Becker’s case and that of Adora Perez, another California, Kings County woman who was wrongly arrested for murder for having experienced a stillbirth.
What did the Supreme Court actually do? The Court merely postponed ruling on the question of whether the murder charge against Ms. Becker should be dismissed because the case was not procedurally ready for substantive review.
The Supreme Court typically only grants review of cases which are final and Ms. Becker’s case is not yet final. The order issued by the Supreme Court on December 23 clearly states that denial of review “is without prejudice to seek relief from any future proceedings." That legal language informs the parties and the public that the Court is available to address the substantive issues once certain lower court proceedings are completed.
In other words, the Supreme Court’s denial of review of the issue at this early stage of the litigation does not, as the erroneous media stories claimed, constitute a loss by either state Attorney General Xavier Becerra or Ms. Becker.
Every year, thousands of women in California have miscarriages and stillbirths. The position taken by the Kings County prosecutor in the Chelsea Becker and Adora Perez cases and the Superior Court judge who has permitted these prosecutions puts thousands of women in California who experience miscarriages and stillbirths at risk of prosecution for murder. AG Becerra correctly stated in his court filing in support of Ms. Becker that California has never and does not now prosecute women for their own pregnancy losses. In 1970, the California legislature amended the murder law to permit prosecutions of third parties whose violence against a pregnant woman caused her to lose that pregnancy. In the 50 years that this law has been in effect, California courts have, until the Kings County cases, never permitted prosecutors to misuse that law as a mechanism for charging women who experience stillbirths as murderers. The 1970 amendment specifically precludes the prosecution of a woman for her own pregnancy loss.
Misreporting the nature of the Supreme Court’s order will (like unauthorized prosecutions) dangerously deter pregnant women from getting the help they need.
Ms. Becker’s legal team including National Advocates for Pregnant Women, led by consulting counsel Dan Arshack of Arshack, Hajek and Lehrman; Jacqueline Goodman of Jacqueline Goodman Law Offices in Fullerton, California; and Roger Nuttall of Nuttall & Coleman in Fresno, California, as well as Ms. Perez’ legal team led by Mary McNamara of Swanson & McNamara LLP, and supported by the ACLU of Northern California, the Drug Policy Alliance, on behalf of numerous medical experts and organizations, and California’s chief legal officer, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, look forward to vindicating the right of every woman in California to be free of murder charges based on any outcome of pregnancy including miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion.
We are seeking corrections by the media outlets.
For more information or to set up an interview with legal counsel, please contact: Shawn Steiner, Media and Communications Director NAPW | 347.943.8148 | SCS@advocatesforpregnantwomen.org