The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that a woman who had a miscarriage can sue her doctor for wrongful death, according to a decision issued last Friday.
The woman, Kimberly Stinnett of Helena, Alabama, was around six weeks pregnant when she first began experiencing severe complications related to her pregnancy. She had a miscarriage a few weeks later, after a doctor, Karla Kennedy, administered medical treatment for a potential ectopic pregnancy.
The decision reverses a previous ruling in an Alabama circuit court that argued that Stinnett’s wrongful death suit could not proceed since the fetus was not yet viable, or able to survive outside her uterus. The ruling alarms both obstetricians, who fear lawsuits after every miscarriage, and abortion supporters, who see it as a further way to legally turn embryos into people and limit abortion rights.
Last week’s decision was unanimous, with all eight Supreme Court justices agreeing that the case should move forward.
"Today, this Court again reaffirms the principle that unborn children are protected by Alabama's wrongful-death statute from the moment life begins at conception," Alabama Supreme Court justice Tom Parker wrote in a special concurring opinion. Parker has figured prominently in the so-called personhood movement, which seeks to dismantle abortion rights by claiming that fetuses have the same rights as people under the Constitution.
“This was a significant decision for both Alabama and the country,” Steve Heninger, Stinnett’s lawyer, told BuzzFeed News via email. “This case has reemphasized the value of life from conception.”
On Wednesday, Kennedy’s attorney announced they will challenge the ruling.
Alabama’s Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of wrongful death cases involving pregnancies. In 2007, it argued that a woman could sue the driver of a vehicle she’d been in after they got in a car accident and she had a miscarriage when she was 12 weeks pregnant. “Hundreds” of other cases have been filed against women alleged to have taken drugs while pregnant, claiming chemical endangerment of a child, said Nancy Rosenbloom, legal director for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
“This bolsters the idea that people can be held to account for actions against an embryo,” said Jill E. Adams, executive director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at UC Berkeley.
But the current case is unique for opening up the possibility that obstetricians, acting in the best interests of their patients, could be sued for wrongful death when complications arise during pregnancies.
“This actually is in essence a line of cases that is extending the definition of personhood to its furthest reaches,” Randall Marshall, legal director for the ACLU of Alabama, told BuzzFeed News. “But this case opens up the practice of ob-gyns to potential liability for their treatment of pregnant women.”
Stinnett was around six weeks pregnant one weekend in May of 2012 when she went to the emergency room experiencing abdominal pain and a fever. She reported that she had previously had two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy. Based on severe abnormalities in her ultrasound and hormone level test, and since the risk for another ectopic pregnancy is very high with a prior history, her doctor eventually treated her with medication meant to end the pregnancy.
An ultrasound the following day by another doctor showed that she did not have an ectopic pregnancy. Stinnett had a miscarriage several weeks later.
While Stinnett is claiming that the doctor’s decision to administer drugs to treat the ectopic pregnancy likely caused the miscarriage, the doctor has contended that the pregnancy was already clearly failing and that it is impossible to say that her treatment choices were the cause.
In November of 2012, Stinnett sued the doctor for medical malpractice and wrongful death of a minor. The circuit court dismissed the wrongful death claims, arguing that there was an exception that prohibited civil liability for doctors who “through mistake or unintentional error cause the death of a pre-viable fetus.” A jury later decided in favor of the doctor in the medical malpractice suit.
The Supreme Court’s current decision to allow the wrongful death case to move forward means that “the science of it doesn’t seem to matter too much,” Jennifer Gunter, a Bay Area ob-gyn, told BuzzFeed News.
“When you’re very worried that someone could have an ectopic pregnancy, and all the evidence that you have is telling you that this could be an ectopic pregnancy, then you have to treat it,” she said. Gunter also noted that nearly 30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.
“It would be very, very chilling if this case wins,” said Gunter. “Women will pay the consequences, and ob-gyns will pay the consequences.”