Matthew Stokes: The tragedy of the Marshae Jones situation

Matthew Stokes: The tragedy of the Marshae Jones situation

By MATHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News

The state of Alabama has spent considerable time in the national news of late, as television pundits and presidential hopefuls have debated the merits of the state’s new abortion law.  Even pro-life conservatives have engaged in a rather intense debate over the merits of the bill and whether an incremental approach to abortion restriction is the wisest course of action.  Within the state, there has been a reflective conversation about women, motherhood, and the overarching concern that the state’s laws are often applied to women in ways that are arbitrary and unfair.  The recent case of Marshae Jones is the most significant flashpoint in that conversation.

The case of Jones is both serious and tragic. As detailed in a thorough report by Carol Robinson of al.com, Jones has been indicted by a Jefferson County grand jury for the crime of manslaughter; the catch is that Jones herself was shot in a fight with another woman while five months pregnant.  She suffered a miscarriage as a result of the gunshot, but as the one who instigated the fight, Jones is being charged with manslaughter.  The case hinges on the legal notion of personhood being applied to a child in the womb; critics fear that this legal designation puts expectant mothers in unnecessary legal peril.

By any reckoning, this case is a tragedy. The other party, Ebony Jemison, has to live with the fact that she pulled the trigger in a fight that left an unborn baby dead. Jones herself has lost a child in a fight that she instigated, and is now facing jail time as a result. If the whole case is ultimately dismissed on the grounds that everyone involved has suffered enough, only a cruel and vindictive person would persist in arguing that justice had not been done. But it is worth remembering that the indictment is not the result of just an overaggressive prosecutor. A grand jury of Jones’ peers saw evidence in this case and agreed to move ahead with charges.

Let’s have a quick word on the concerns about aggressive prosecution. Pro-lifers have heard the concerns about women facing prosecution for miscarriages for years, but rarely have such prosecutions occurred. One recent example is the case of the Arkansas mother who gave birth to stillbortn twins and, after burying the dead children in a suitcase, was charged with abuse of a corpse. Jones’ case is the first of its kind in Alabama, and one of the only of its kind nationwide. But I do share the concern that without clear and specific language in our laws and statutes, an overzealous prosecutor could determine that a true accident – a car wreck, for instance, as one media colleague put it – that results in a miscarriage could lead to prosecution. Anti-abortion advocates should take pause and consider that prosecutors work with very specific, clear language that is not open to multiple interpretations. Anyone who doubts that such prosecutors might exist need only remember that Roy Moore presided over a courtroom for a number of years.

But there is another angle to consider.  Practically all of the commentary within Alabama has circled back to the idea that we as a state do not do enough for expectant mothers and their children, both during pregnancy and in the years of infancy and toddlerhood. This complaint has gone up so many times that it has become predictable, if not boring. I have previously addressed the faulty idea that it is somehow hypocritical or inconsistent to demand legal protection for life in the womb while failing, in the eyes of critics, to properly fund Medicard or pre-K programs. This is neither hypocrisy, nor inconsistency in the law. These things are often treated separately because while they are related categories, they are ultimately distinct ones. Citizens may oppose expansion of a government program for any number of reasons, but it does not follow that opposition to any program requires abandoning one’s conviction about the value of life in the womb.

There is a final, more salient point. If we’re serious about care for expectant mothers, we should reinforce the idea that one ought not do risky things when pregnant.  That is a point to be reinforced in culture and quite possibly in law.  No one wants to see a mother prosecuted for a miscarriage caused by a car wreck, and based on what we know, I don’t feel comfortable prosecuting Marshae Jones. Risky in this case does not entail breaking the speed limit, but it would encompass the sort of behavior that no rational adult could possibly countenance.

Yet if we’re going to accuse Alabamians of hypocrisy for supporting abortion restrictions while not funding Medicaid at the appropriate level, maybe we find a creative way to remind expectant mothers that once pregnant, it’s time to walk away from parking lot fights.  It is time to walk away from drugs.  Breaking old habits and patterns can be very, very hard, so I say all of this carefully.  At some point, we must treat our fellow citizens, even young, impoverished mothers, as some sort of adult.

That means we draft laws that every adult can understand, and we demand they be enforced fairly and consistently.  It also means that if we demand the state do more to support mothers and their children, we must balance that by likewise demanding that mothers avoid making obviously bad and potentially criminal decisions.  The state can assist here, but the real heavy lifting will have to come from civil society, from families, churches, and communities.

Marshae Jones’ case is a tragedy, and the right thing is probably to say “Lord, have mercy” and close the book.  But it should nonetheless be a lesson that our laws must be crystal clear and that parenthood carries with it responsibilities that must be upheld.  If we lose sight of that, we make it clear that Medicaid and preschool are not the only way that we can abandon mothers and their children.