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Woman who ate poison while pregnant loses appeal

The Indiana Supreme Court on Friday declined to drop murder and feticide charges against a woman who ate rat poison while she was pregnant in a case that medical and women's rights groups contend could have larger repercussions.

However, the court's unanimous ruling does allow Bei Bei Shuai to be released on bond, which is rare in murder cases.

Shuai's attorneys contend the Chinese immigrant living in Indianapolis ate rat poison in a suicide attempt, not to kill her baby, and that she was suffering from depression. Prosecutors have said she wanted the baby to die. The baby died three days after being born.

Defense attorneys argued in court documents filed March 9 that prosecuting a woman based on the outcome of her pregnancy violates constitutional rights to due process and equal treatment and is cruel and unusual punishment.

Shuai, 34, lost her bid to have the charges against her dropped when Indiana's highest court declined to hear her appeal. Friday's order let stand a February Indiana Court of Appeals ruling that ordered a Marion County judge to set bond. Shuai was charged in March 2011 and has been jailed since.

Shuai's attorney, Linda Pence, said she was "devastated" that the high court declined to hear the case. "It's horrible. She shouldn't be in jail. She should never have been in jail in the first place," Pence said.

Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office, which defended the charges on appeal, emailed a brief statement. "We respect the Court and the process in this difficult case," Corbin said.

Several medical and women's rights groups, including the National Organization for Women and the National Alliance for Mental Illness, have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Shuai, claiming that prosecuting Shuai could set a precedent under which pregnant women could be prosecuted for smoking or other behavior that might deemed a danger to their fetus. They said that could discourage women from seeking prenatal care.

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said prosecutors are merely applying Indiana law.

"The Legislature has drafted a law that says the intentional killing of a fetus is within the murder statute. We think that intent is present," Curry said. "All we can do from the prosecutor's perspective is enforce the law."

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the New York-based National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said Indiana courts have ignored 80 organizations and experts who have warned that allowing the case to go forward is "bad for mothers and babies." An attorney from Paltrow's group is helping defend Shuai.

"The message is ... if you suffer a pregnancy loss or do anything an outsider thinks could be harming your pregnancy, you could be charged with a crime and put on trial," Paltrow said.

Curry disputed that theory.

"We've attempted to make it clear that there's no intention whatsoever to endanger pregnant women, to endanger a fetus," he said.

Shuai was 33 weeks pregnant when she ate rat poison on Dec. 23, 2010, after her boyfriend broke up with her. Shuai was hospitalized, and doctors tried to treat her for the poison. Court records show doctors told Shuai that they detected little problem with the fetus until days later, when the premature baby girl was delivered by cesarean section Dec. 31. The child, Angel Shuai, died from bleeding in the brain after being removed from life support.

The Indiana Court of Appeals in February ordered a judge to set bond for Shuai, saying her defense attorneys presented sufficient evidence to rebut the murder and feticide charges. But the three-judge panel declined to dismiss the case, saying Shuai had not proven that common-law immunity exists for pregnant women who harm their own fetuses.

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Follow Charles Wilson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CharlesDWilson

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