In many ways Bei Bei Shuai’s story sounds like my mom’s. Both women were raised in large Chinese cities, in households where both parents worked. Both came to the United States, following partners with promising job prospects. Both worked in Chinese restaurants while harboring plans to improve their English and get graduate degrees. It’s the story of many Chinese immigrant women, but Ms. Shuai’s narrative diverged when, at eight months pregnant, she was abandoned by her boyfriend who, it turns out, had another family.
Suffering from major depression, Ms. Shuai ingested rat poison as a suicide attempt and was rushed to the hospital by friends. She consented to all treatment to save her life and her pregnancy, but, while she survived, the baby to which she gave birth died after a few days. She was charged with murder and attempted feticide while still hospitalized for an emotional breakdown, and then spent 435 days in prison. She is now out on bail, but paying for a GPS-enabled ankle bracelet that will cost her $2500 until her trial.
What is wrong with this picture?
Well, what part of what Bei Bei Shuai did was criminal? Suicide is not a crime in Indiana, and the law used to charge Ms. Shuai with feticide was targeted at third party attacks on pregnant women, not at suicide or abortion. This particular interpretation of the law is the result of a swelling segment of anti-choice advocates who want to give fetuses separate legal personhood. These efforts, in turn, criminalize the behavior of pregnant women and subject them to investigation for miscarriages or poor birth outcomes. Pregnant women would become a separate class with fewer rights than anyone else.
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Second, criminal penalties hardly seem like an effective deterrent to actions made under extreme emotional disturbance. That just isn’t how mental health works! Instead there needs to be careful screening and medical treatment for the 13 to 20 percent of women who experience depression while pregnant, and the 30 percent of depressed pregnant women have suicidal ideation.
Finally, let’s go back to the familiar story of Ms. Shuai’s immigrant experience. Many media outlets have portrayed Ms. Shuai sympathetically, but this sympathy can misguidedly stem from referencing the model minority myth, rather than the rights to which all women are entitled. The one interview with Bei Bei Shuai currently online shows her answering the questions about her family, her hopes upon arriving in America, and how she spent her time in prison. She answers that she came to the United States wanting independence and a Masters in Business Administration, has been taking classes in prison, and is still strongly determined to live in America.
Together, Ms. Shuai’s optimistic answers and lack of hard feeling toward the American justice system form a perfect narrative of the grateful, educated, and ambitious immigrant. It seems to announce to white viewers, “Hey! She might be a foreigner and a woman of color, but she’s middle class, loves this country, and believes in its bootstrapping principles! We can sympathize with her and thus she deserves better!” But the insidious implication in the media constructing this type of narrative is that only people who have lived “perfect” lives up until that point — those who can answer those questions as Ms. Shuai or my mother would — are entitled to bodily autonomy and freedom from state intrusion into their private grief.
And even if Bei Bei Shuai’s Chinese upbringing might look like a non-threatening analogue of the stereotypical American family, 34 percent of American children actually do not live in a home with two married parents. Many women from these families are especially vulnerable in terms of the ability to access health services and will see their rights stripped away by fetal personhood statutes. Bei Bei Shuai is admirably resilient and positive and her story demonstrates how even women who have conformed to the mainstream can become victimized. But women who do not fit that profile, who might be undocumented immigrants, on public assistance, raised in nontraditional families, angry about the way American society has written them off, all deserve justice and dignity just as much. It’s a basic human right.