Ohio woman who miscarried at home won’t be charged with corpse abuse, grand jury decides
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio woman facing a criminal charge for her handling of a home miscarriage will not be charged, a grand jury decided Thursday.
The Trumbull County prosecutor’s office said grand jurors declined to return an indictment for abuse of a corpse against Brittany Watts, 34, of Warren, resolving a case that had sparked national attention for its implications for pregnant women as states across the country hash out new laws governing reproductive health care access in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned.
The announcement came hours before her supporters planned a “We Stand With Brittany!” rally on Warren’s Courthouse Square.
Watts’ lawyer said an outpouring of emails, letters, calls, donations and prayers from the public helped her client endure the ordeal of being charged with a felony punishable by up to a year in prison.
“No matter how shocking or disturbing it may sound when presented in a public forum, it is simply the devastating reality of miscarriage,” attorney Traci Timko said in a statement. “While the last three months have been agonizing, we are incredibly grateful and relieved that justice was handed down by the grand jury today.”
A municipal judge had found probable cause to bind over Watts’ case. That was after city prosecutors said she miscarried, flushed and scooped out the toilet, then left the house, leaving the 22-week-old fetus lodged in the pipes.
Watts had visited Mercy Health-St. Joseph’s Hospital, a Catholic facility in working-class Warren, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of Cleveland, twice in the days leading up to her miscarriage. Her doctor had told her she was carrying a nonviable fetus and to have her labor induced or risk “significant risk” of death, according to records of her case.
Due to delays and other complications, her attorney said, she left each time without being treated. After she miscarried, she tried to go to a hair appointment, but friends sent her to the hospital. A nurse called 911 to report a previously pregnant patient had returned reporting “the baby’s in her backyard in a bucket.”
That call launched a police investigation that led to the eventual charge against Watts.
Warren Assistant Prosecutor Lewis Guarnieri told Municipal Court Judge Terry Ivanchak the issue wasn’t “how the child died, when the child died” but “the fact the baby was put into a toilet, was large enough to clog up the toilet, left in the toilet, and she went on (with) her day.”
An autopsy determined the fetus died in utero and identified “no recent injuries.”
Timko told Ivanchak that Watts, who is Black, had no criminal record and was being “demonized for something that goes on every day.” She also argued that Ohio’s abuse-of-corpse statute lacked clear definitions, including what is meant by “human corpse” and what constitutes “outrage” to “reasonable” family and community sensibilities.
When Ivanchak bound the case over, he said, “There are better scholars than I am to determine the exact legal status of this fetus, corpse, body, birthing tissue, whatever it is.”
In Our Own Voice, a Black reproductive rights group, expressed relief Thursday at the case’s outcome.
“What happened to Brittany Watts is a grave example of how Black women and their bodies face legal threats simply for existing,” president and CEO Dr. Regina Davis Moss said in a statement. “Her story is one that is becoming alarmingly common: in states with abortion restrictions, Black women, girls, and gender-expansive people are being surveilled, arrested, prosecuted and punished for pregnancy loss.”
Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights, a key backer of Ohio’s successful fall amendment protecting access to reproductive health care, had lobbied Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins to drop the charge against Watts, which Watkins insisted was not within his power.
On Thursday, the group commended the grand jury and called for the “dangerous trend” of criminalizing reproductive outcomes to be halted.
“It not only undermines women’s rights but also threatens public health by instilling fear and hesitation in women seeking necessary medical care during their most vulnerable moments,” President Dr. Marcela Azevedo said in a statement.
Watts hopes her story can be an “impetus to change,” Timko said.
“Through education and legislation,” Timko said, “we can make sure no other woman must set her grief and trauma on a back burner to muster the strength to fight for her freedom.”