Catherine Furey, 38, of the UK, died in December 2010 after drinking concentrated vinegar, a DIY abortion she read about on the Internet. Furey had a “violent reaction” to the vinegar, was rushed to the hospital and died.
The details of her death have only now come out in relation to a trial against Furey’s sister-in-law, Dawn Chadwick, who handed Furey the vinegar bottle. Arrested in 2011, Chadwick was later charged with “unlawfully supplying a poisonous or noxious substance with the intent to cause the miscarriage of a woman.” The charge was later upgraded to manslaughter, but she was eventually cleared of wrongdoing. The families of the two women, through their lawyers, have issued statements saying they do not blame the sister-in-law for Catherine Furey’s death.
The families’ cite Dawn Chadwick’s “significant learning disabilities” as part of the reason for their forgiveness and called the various charges against her a “second tragedy.” To that end, this incident in the UK reminds me all too much of the one presently unfolding right now in Indiana. A Chinese immigrant named Bei Bei Shuai, 35, was pregnant when she tried to commit suicide in December by eating rat poison. Her boyfriend had broken up with her and she apparently no longer wanted to live, especially not with a child. But Shuai lived through her suicide attempt, and her baby was born alive, via C-section. The child died three days later and Bei Bei Shuai was charged with attempted feticide. After months in prison, it was not until today, in fact, that Shuai was released from jail, so long as she surrenders her passport and submits to GPS tracking. The fact that Bei Bei Shuai was imprisoned at all is grossly discompassionate.
Women’s rights activists have galvanized around Bei Bei Shuai because they were concerned about what kind of precedent her prosecution would set, i.e. prosecuting women for the outcomes of their pregnancies. (Read a post that Julie recently wrote on this same issue here.) Attempting to commit suicide is an extreme example, but it’s a slippery slope. Various rights’ groups that filed friend-of-the-court briefs questioned whether women could be held accountable for future harm to their children over completely unintentional things, like exposure to household cleaning chemicals, caffeine, or prescription drugs.
That particular legal slippery slope was disconcerting, but I also found it personally unethical to imprison a woman who attempted to commit suicide because she was clearly depressed and distraught. It’s unclear whether Shuai was depressed because her boyfriend just dumped her while she was pregnant, or whether she suffered from pregnancy depression. But it hardly matters, does it? This woman was sick; so sick she tried to take her own life. I’m not suggesting that all people who have a mental illness shouldn’t be held accountable for the crimes that they commit; rather, I am suggesting that the mental illness should be treated, not punished, and the affect a mental illness has on one’s behavior should be taken into consideration. (FWIW, this is my opinion on drug addiction as well — speaking as someone whose brother was a drug addict and mentally ill and spent time in prison when that really did nothing to help.)
It’s unclear whether the deceased woman, Catherine Furey, had any mental health issues or learning disabilities or anything. Part of me wants to scoff and say, Well, she did try to give herself an abortion based on stuff she read on the Internet — what a terrible thing to do. But the reality is that both in the UK and in the U.S., women’s reproductive rights are under attack. We don’t know how accessible abortion was to her. We don’t know how affordable abortion was to her. We don’t know if her five existing children, or her family or friends, were somehow impeding her decision to end the pregnancy. Anti-abortion advocates/politicians literally make it their life’s work to make getting an abortion as difficult as possible.
It’s easy for us to sit here and judge that what these women did was terrible, or even dumb. We know that taking DIY medical advice off the Internet is generally a bad idea. But you know what? Before abortion became legal — which meant it could be done safely in hospitals and clinics — these kinds of preventable deaths happened all the time. And that is why abortion needs to be legal, accessible and free from stigma.
Contact the author of this post at Jessica@TheFrisky.com. Follow me on Twitter at @JessicaWakeman.
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