Ohio woman's abortion case highlights the limitations of state-level reform

The fallout from the repeal of Roe v. Wade continues to reverberate across the country, as a case involving a miscarriage provides a startling example of the criminalization of pregnancy. In Ohio, where voters recently installed a constitutional protection to reproductive rights, a woman named Brittany Watts faces felony charges following a miscarriage. Watts is accused of abusing a corpse after she flushed the remains of a fetus down the toilet in her Warren home. 

Watts went to the hospital last September after experiencing complications with her pregnancy, where doctors determined her water had broken prematurely. She was then forced to wait eight hours while an ethics committee assessed whether or not they could face legal consequences for providing the necessary care, as her pregnancy was at 22 weeks and could potentially violate Ohio’s viability laws. 

Several days later, Watts — who had still not received any care regarding her pregnancy — miscarried. In turn, the hospital notified police of the need to retrieve the fetus, which was discovered in Watts’ toilet. Law enforcement went as far as removing the entire toilet from her home to collect evidence. 

Two weeks later, police charged Watts with the aforementioned crime. Now-retired Warren Municipal Court Judge Terry Ivanchak affirmed the charges, and Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins claimed in a December memo that he is “duty bound” by Ohio law to follow through with the prosecution and therefore cannot drop the charges.  

Pro-abortion groups such as Planned Parenthood have spoken out against the case, which they perceive as an assault on reproductive rights. 

“In the wake of stricter abortion laws being enacted across the country, it is an unfortunate reality that many other women might face similar charges,” the Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio said in a statement released today. “Watts’ case is a stark reminder that lawmakers will look for opportunities to police our bodies in order to advance their own political agendas, of Ohio’s inequitable maternal care, and how Ohioans deserve compassionate miscarriage care. 

“There is much work to be done to ensure equitable and accessible reproductive care. Even with the constitutional protections Issue 1 affords Ohioans, the determinations for fetal viability are decided on a case-by-case basis which leaves open the possibility of charges like those against Watts.” 

And while other pregnant women have faced similar circumstances during miscarriages in Ohio — in part due to trepidations by hospitals fearing legal reprisal — Watts’ case is just as draconian as it is unique. And could potentially forebode other prosecutions in states with strict abortion laws. 

“Brittany Watts' case is remarkable in a couple of ways,” Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California, Davis and the author of "Roe: The History of a National Obsession," told PBS. “There's a history, as the group Pregnancy Justice has documented, of laws criminalizing the actions of pregnant patients, particularly usually actions that were taken by low-income people, people of color, particularly substance abuse, sometimes of illegal drugs, sometimes of legal drugs like alcohol. 

“You almost never, or, to my knowledge, never see a prosecution of someone like Brittany Watts. Everyone has conceded that this pregnancy was already nonviable when the actions she took that have led to charges began. So this is, I think, both a continuation of a trend, but also an acceleration of a trend. This is something we haven't seen much before.” 

Subscribe to The Lede

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson