Miscarriage Of Justice? Red State’s Court Ruling Has Doctors, Abortion Activists Worried
Court Ruling Could Impact Doctors, Women Seeking Abortions
Kimberly Stinnett was about six weeks pregnant when severe complications stemming from her pregnancy set in. She then had a miscarriage a few weeks later, after doctor Karla Kennedy administered medical treatment for a possible ectopic pregnancy.
The court’s decision reverses an earlier ruling in an Alabama circuit court. That ruling argued that Stinnett’s wrongful death suit couldn’t proceed because the fetus was not yet viable, meaning it couldn’t survive outside her uterus.
Now, obstetricians are worried because they face potential lawsuits after each miscarriage, and abortion supporters are worried because they see it as another way to legally turn embryos into people, further limiting abortion rights.
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The ruling by Alabama’s Supreme Court was unanimous. All eight justices agreed the case should proceed.
“Today, this Court again reaffirms the principle that unborn children are protected by Alabama’s wrongful-death statute from the moment life begins at conception,” Alabama Supreme Court justice Tom Parker concurred in the opinion he wrote.
Parker is a controversial and prominent person in the so-called personhood movement, whose goals are to dismantle abortion rights by asserting that fetuses have the same rights as people under the Constitution.
“This was a significant decision for both Alabama and the country,” said Stinnett’s lawyer, Steve Heninger, in an email to BuzzFeed News. “This case has reemphasized the value of life from conception.”
Alabama’s Supreme Court typically rules in favor of wrongful death cases that involve pregnancy. In 2007, the court argued in favor of allowing a woman to sue the driver of a vehicle she was in when a car accident occurred and she had a miscarriage when she was 12 weeks pregnant. And “hundreds” of cases have been filed against women who allegedly took drugs while pregnant, resulting in claims of chemical endangerment to a child, said Nancy Rosenbloom, legal director for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
“This bolsters the idea that people can be held to account for actions against an embryo,” said Jill E. Adams, executive director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at UC Berkeley.
This case, however, is unique because it opens the possibility that obstetricians, working in the best interests of their patients, may be vulnerable to lawsuits.
“This actually is in essence a line of cases that is extending the definition of personhood to its furthest reaches,” said Randall Marshall, legal director for the ACLU of Alabama, according to BuzzFeed News. “But this case opens up the practice of ob-gyns to potential liability for their treatment of pregnant women.”
Experiencing abdominal pain and a fever, Stinnett went to the emergency room one weekend in May 2012. She reported that she’d suffered two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy in the past. An ultrasound revealed severe abnormalities, as did hormone level tests, and because she’d had an ectopic pregnancy earlier, the risk for another such pregnancy was very high. So Kennedy eventually treated her with medication meant to end the pregnancy.
But an ultrasound the next day, conducted by another doctor, showed that she didn’t have an ectopic pregnancy. Several weeks later, Stinnett had a miscarriage.
She now claims that Kennedy’s decision to administer drugs to treat ectopic pregnancy likely caused the miscarriage, but the doctor contends that the pregnancy was clearly failing and that it’s impossible to prove that her treatment choices caused this.
Stinnett sued Kennedy in November 2012, alleging medical malpractice and wrongful death of a minor. The circuit court dismissed the wrongful death claims, saying there was an exception that prohibited civil liability for doctors who “through mistake or unintentional error cause the death of a pre-viable fetus,” BuzzFeed News notes. Later, a jury sided with Kennedy in the medical malpractice suit.
But now, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the wrongful death case to proceed means that “the science of it doesn’t seem to matter too much,” said Jennifer Gunter, a Bay Area ob-gyn.
“When you’re very worried that someone could have an ectopic pregnancy, and all the evidence that you have is telling you that this could be an ectopic pregnancy, then you have to treat it,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Gunter added that nearly 30 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.
“It would be very, very chilling if this case wins,” Gunter said. “Women will pay the consequences, and ob-gyns will pay the consequences.”
Kennedy, whose practice is in Birmingham, is expected to ask the Alabama Supreme Court to reconsider its decision to allow Stinnett to proceed with the case, AL.com reports.
“On behalf of Dr. Kennedy, we anticipate filing an application for rehearsing with the Alabama Supreme Court,” said Michael K. Wright, an attorney representing Kennedy, in an email to the site.
The outcome of this case remains to be seen, but it is sad to think that this may make it more difficult to do vital work, and more difficult for women seeking abortions.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images