Mississippi Mom Faces Murder Charge For Stillborn Baby Because She Did Cocaine While Pregnant, And Here's Why It's A Landmark Case

A judge in Mississippi is expected to decide this week whether Rennie Gibbs should face murder charges for the death of her stillborn daughter, Samiya, in 2006. When Samiya's body was autopsied and trace amounts of benzoylecgonine, a cocaine byproduct, were discovered in her blood. Controversial Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne ruled the death a homicide — and Rennie Gibbs a murderer. She was 16 years old at the time.

A 2007 grand jury indicted Gibbs for "depraved-heart murder," saying that she'd recklessly endangered the life of her fetus by smoking crack cocaine while pregnant, and that Samiya's death was on Gibbs' hands, having caused it "unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously."

If the judge decides to let the case go forward, Gibbs would risk becoming the first woman convicted in Mississippi over the loss of a stillborn child, and that's a legal precedent that carries huge ramifications for the state's women of color. Gibbs is black, and that's context necessary for understanding the uniquely awful position such a precedent would put women like her in — the rate of infant mortality for black women in Mississippi is over twice that of white women.

It's not especially controversial to say that using drugs while pregnant is a bad idea. But the central charge of responsibility in this case goes beyond even some cries of the anti-abortion movement, which likens women's reproductive autonomy to murder. In the case of Gibbs, and other cases like hers, nobody is claiming she calculatingly got high to try to intentionally terminate her pregnancy.

Rather, they're charging that a woman who failed to make positive, safe health decisions in the course of trying to carry her pregnancy to term deserves to be tossed in prison for life, like every bit a common murderer. And in doing so, a girl of just 16 contending with drug use and the loss of a newborn, likely in desperate need of support, is condemned and cast aside.

Mississippi is already an abysmal place for women's health, especially as relate to reproduction, boasting extremely restrictive abortion laws, and sky-high rates of teenage pregnancy. And as state-level efforts by anti-abortion conservatives teem throughout the American South and beyond, these are the kinds of legal battles it's feared women will increasingly have to face, especially for the impoverished and powerless.