Brittany Watts, a 34-year-old woman from Ohio, is now at the center of a controversial legal battle, facing potential indictment for a fifth-degree felony of “abuse of a corpse” after miscarrying a nonviable fetus at home. Watts’ arrest in October 2023 has sent shockwaves through the reproductive rights movement, raising questions about the implications of such charges. Legal experts and advocates worry that this interpretation of the law could have a chilling effect on women seeking medical care during miscarriages, sparking a broader debate on reproductive rights in Ohio. Watts could face up to a year in prison, despite records confirming a spontaneous miscarriage. 

Watts was 21 weeks and five days pregnant when admitted to the hospital due to complications including vaginal bleeding and her water breaking prematurely. The hospital ethics panel debated for 8 hours over whether it was legal to induce her pregnancy since she was so close to the 22 week cut off point for abortion. Patients that do not receive treatment for a premature water breakage are at risk of developing sepsis, which is deadly. Watts left the hospital twice without treatment, eventually miscarrying the fetus at home. When she went back to the hospital, a nurse called the police, leading to her arrest and the charge of abuse of a corpse.

The law in question, adopted in 1996, prohibits the mistreatment of a human corpse in a way that “outrages family or community sensibilities.” Legal experts argue that the fetus, which died in utero, may not legally be considered a human corpse, challenging the grounds for prosecution. According to Watt’s attorney, Ohio law does not require fetal remains from miscarriages to be buried or cremated. 

This case unfolds against the backdrop of recent changes in Ohio’s abortion laws, with voters enshrining the right to abortion until the point of fetal viability at 22 weeks last November. Reproductive rights advocates fear the case could set a precedent for criminalizing miscarriages and other pregnancy outcomes. The prosecution contends it is duty-bound to follow Ohio law, while critics call for the dismissal of what they consider an unwarranted charge. The grand jury’s decision is pending, with public pressure increasing against the unusual interpretation of the law.

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