Group decries sentencing of Oklahoma woman for miscarriage

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A national advocacy group for women on Monday blasted the sentencing of a 21-year-old Oklahoma woman to prison for a manslaughter conviction after she suffered a miscarriage while using methamphetamine.

Brittney Poolaw, of Lawton, was sentenced to four years in prison this month after a jury convicted her of first-degree manslaughter.

An autopsy of Poolaw's fetus showed it tested positive for methamphetamine. But there was no evidence that her meth use caused the miscarriage, which the autopsy indicated could have been caused by factors including a congenital abnormality and placental abruption, a complication in which the placenta detaches from the womb, said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

According to the medical examiner's report, the fetus was between 15 and 17 weeks old, which means it wouldn't have been able to viably survive outside the womb yet.

“This prosecution went forward against somebody who had a pregnancy loss before the fetus was considered viable," Paltrow said. “In this case, you not only have a miscarriage rather than a stillbirth early in pregnancy, but the medical examiner's report doesn’t even claim that methamphetamine was the cause."

Comanche County District Attorney Kyle Cabelka and Poolaw's court-appointed trial attorney, Larry Corrales, didn't immediately reply to messages seeking comment. The National Advocates for Pregnant Women said it helped retain another attorney, John Coyle, to assist with an appeal.

Such prosecutions of women who lose their pregnancies have become more common in recent years. According to a study commissioned by the NAPW, there were 413 such criminal prosecutions from 1973 to 2005. Data from 2006 to 2020 shows there were about 1,250 such criminal cases, said Dana Sussman, NAPW's deputy executive director.

“So we’re looking at three times as many cases in less than half the period of time as this first study," Sussman said. “This is far more common than I think most people would ever believe or understand."

There were at least two dozen such cases in Oklahoma, Sussman said, most involving pregnant mothers who used drugs, although in most cases women were charged with child abuse or neglect.

Just last year, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that embryos and fetuses are included in the definition of a “child" for the purposes of prosecuting child neglect cases.