Does Too Much Pressure on Your Pregnant Belly Hurt Your Baby?
Have you heard stories about when teachers used to send their students home with egg “babies” as a lesson in just how hard it is to keep a fragile little thing safe and protected?
You might have laughed and laughed because it was obviously not the same — except now you’re pregnant, and you’re wondering if waddling around with a baby sticking out from your center of gravity isn’t so different from carrying that egg around all day.
There’s a fragile little one that needs protecting from the big bad world out there, and you’re the only thing standing in the way.
Or are you?
There’s actually a lot of padding between the outside of your stomach and the cozy bubble that baby is floating around in. But your abdomen isn’t bulletproof, no matter how badass growing an entire human makes you feel — there’s a limit to how much pressure and impact it can withstand.
So just how safe is your baby when it’s inside you? Here’s what you need to know.
Why your baby is (relatively) safe
Admit it: You went home with your egg baby, all confident and carefree, and then before the weekend was over you dropped it on the kitchen floor — because taking care of an egg baby is hard, folks.
Thankfully, taking care of your real baby while they’re in your belly is way easier.
People have been growing and carrying babies for… well, all of life on Earth. Traveling long distances on foot, toiling in the fields, taking care of other children, tending to animals — the pregnant body is actually designed to withstand a lot.
There are a few reasons, specifically, why your body can handle some roughing up without injury to your baby:
- your uterus, aka the strong muscular organ housing your wee one
- your amniotic fluid, which absorbs pressure like a waterbed would
- the extra body weight you’re carrying, which acts like a protective fat layer
One thing to note is that contact (like bumping into a wall) is different from trauma (like a car accident).
Your belly can handle day-to-day abdominal contact. Trauma is a different story, but it’s also much less common.
Is a certain trimester more dangerous than others?
Because baby is so tiny in the first trimester, there’s virtually no risk to them with abdominal contact or trauma. It’s not impossible to have a negative outcome, but it would be rare unless the injury was severe.
The risk increases a bit in the second trimester, as your baby and stomach start growing more. Even still, the chances of harm to the baby are low.
The third trimester, though, is different. At this point, baby is getting pretty big and filling up a lot of the available real estate in your belly.
This means you may have less cushioning from amniotic fluid and body fat.
It also means you’re at a higher risk of placental abruption, which is most common in the third trimester. Placental abruption isn’t always caused by trauma — but trauma can cause it, leading to bleeding, pain, and even premature delivery.
All these factors combined make the third trimester the most dangerous when it comes to abdominal impact.
Common sources of impact to the belly
Kids and pets
Little kids, dogs, and cats either don’t know or couldn’t care less that you’re pregnant, and their exuberance can result in some uncomfortable leaps into your arms or onto your lap.
For the most part, this won’t hurt your baby; after all, expectant moms have been living with older children and pets forever, mostly without incident.
It does make sense to do some training, though (of your pet and your kid, if necessary!) so it’s not a repeated thing. If your child or pet is over 40 pounds, they could — in theory — accidentally hit you hard enough to cause an injury.
Discourage larger dogs from jumping to greet you and teach your toddler to “hug gently” to avoid any issues.
In general, minor car accidents pose more of a risk to you than to baby. This is especially true in the first and second trimesters. Even in the third trimester, the risk to your baby is low as long as the accident is one all parties can walk away from.
But regardless of how far along you are or how serious (or not) the crash is, always get checked by a doctor right away.
While a little fender bender around the corner from your house isn’t likely to cause any problems, any kind of car accident falls into the “needs medical attention” category of pregnancy impacts.
Whether you were a klutz pre-pregnancy or not, you aren’t likely to escape those 9 months without banging your bump into doors, cabinets, drawers, and furniture.
Why? Because your center of gravity is all messed up, and you may be in a constant state of distraction thanks to pregnancy brain.
If you’re constantly bumping your belly while you vacuum, wash dishes, put away laundry, or just generally go about your daily biz around the house, you don’t need to worry — baby is nice and safe in there.
The good news is that you don’t have to change up your intimacy routine with your partner very much during pregnancy. There aren’t any sex positions that are actually unsafe.
Some positions might simply be uncomfortable for you, like ones where you have to lie on your back.
Although it isn’t dangerous to be on the bottom for the length of a normal sexual encounter, you might want to try new sex positions during pregnancy that aren’t only more comfortable but maximize the experience for your changing body.
Trips, slips, and falls
Again, your center of gravity isn’t the same as it used to be, so tripping and slipping isn’t unusual during pregnancy. As far as whether these foibles need to be evaluated by your doctor, that depends on if there was any impact to your back or stomach.
In other words, if you trip on a wayward shoe or slip on a patch of ice but don’t hit the floor or ground, you should be good to go.
If you do fall down, though, and it’s hard enough to hurt or knock the wind out of you for a sec, you should give your doctor a call to see what they say. (They might want to examine you or they might just tell you to monitor yourself for signs of injury.)
Any serious falls — like taking a tumble down a flight of stairs or while getting out of the shower — should receive medical attention right away, either with your doctor or through an emergency or urgent care facility.
Common abdominal strains
Per the , heavy lifting can not only result in more injuries for you, but could increase your risk for preterm birth.
But what does “heavy lifting” actually mean? Can you carry that box of new baby items up the stairs? Pick up your 5-year-old? Exercise with hand weights?
Well, it depends.
suggest that certain factors play into the overall amount you can safely lift. These factors include:
- how far along you are
- how heavy the item or person you’re lifting is
- how often you need to be doing the lifting
To sum it up: The more often you need to lift things, the lighter in weight they should be. Heavier objects can be lifted as long as it’s done infrequently. (And those numbers vary based on whether you’re fewer than 20 weeks or more than 20 weeks pregnant, FYI.)
Also make sure you’re using safe lifting techniques, like bending from the knees and not raising items over your head.
Getting up using your abdominal muscles
If you’re the type who used to jump out of bed first thing in the morning and hit the ground running, you won’t do any harm to your baby with that habit — but you might want to consider a more moderate approach for your own sake.
Repeated abdominal strain during pregnancy can cause or worsen diastasis recti, a common pregnancy and postpartum condition that can be difficult to fully resolve (even with months and months of specialized exercise).
Instead of using your abs to get into a standing position from a prone or seated one, turn onto your side and push off with your arms and legs, or grab onto something — yes, your partner counts — and gently pull yourself up.
Exercises that use your abdominal muscles
You use your core for the vast majority of exercises, even when they’re focused on your arms, butt, or legs.
But there are definitely some exercises, like crunches, sit-ups, and leg lifts, that work your abs the hardest — and these should generally be avoided after the first trimester.
While there’s no direct harm to your baby with these exercises, there are a few reasons why it’s better to skip them.
Lying flat on your back can interfere with your blood flow, and can also cause you to accidentally strain other muscle groups, like the ones in your back, to overcompensate for the weight in your front.
If you want to keep strengthening your core during pregnancy, you can do planks, standing crunches, and yoga poses that position you on your hands and knees.
When to contact your doctor
There are three scenarios where you should call your doctor ASAP, no matter how small they might seem in the moment:
- You’re in a car accident. It doesn’t matter if it’s a head-on collision or a small tap in a parking lot — contact your doctor if you’re involved in any kind of motor vehicle accident.
- You fall. Flat on your face, hard on your butt, turtle-style onto your backside — it doesn’t matter where you land or what you injure. If there’s impact, you should call your doctor.
- You experience an intentional blow to the stomach. There will always be rogue limbs flying when you have a toddler around, and that’s fine. But if anyone hits or kicks you in the stomach on purpose, you should contact your doctor (and if necessary, the police or a domestic violence hotline, depending on the situation).
If you have a minor abdominal strain or impact like the ones we outlined before (e.g., your dog jumped on you or you lifted something unexpectedly heavy), you most likely won’t need to call or see your doctor.
You still should be on the lookout for any concerning symptoms, such as:
- vaginal bleeding or bloody discharge
- consistent pain or cramping
- frequent contractions that don’t get better when you rest
- a decrease in fetal movement
If you notice any of these symptoms, call your doctor, regardless of how mild you think the impact or strain to your belly might have been.
The bottom line
The vast majority of contact your belly has with the outside world every day won’t hurt your baby — they’re very well protected in there!
The risk increases a little during the third trimester, when baby is bigger and the risk of placental abruption is higher. Even then, it takes a traumatic event (not your 5-year-old climbing into your lap) to be cause for concern.
That said, any traumatic event should prompt a call to your doctor, along with any symptoms of pain, bleeding, contractions, or changes to your baby’s movement.
There are a number of myths surrounding pregnancy loss and what can cause it. Here are some common ones that do NOT cause a miscarriage:
- Lifting small children or something heavy. In general, healthy pregnant women may lift 15-20 pounds in moderation. Chances are that your body would cause you to drop a heavy item before any harm could occur.
- Stress or working too hard. Many women experience stressful events during pregnancy, and they have perfectly healthy babies in spite of the trauma. However, if you have had recurring miscarriages, talk to your doctor about the recent research that indicates it may be a factor for women who have had multiple miscarriages.
- Drinking alcohol. Some women agonize over the cocktails or glasses of wine they drank before they knew they were pregnant. A newly forming baby receives so little of its mother’s blood for the first few weeks of pregnancy, that this should not be a cause for concern. To continue drinking throughout the pregnancy however, can cause a serious problem called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome .
- Bad eating habits. Forgetting to take your prenatal vitamins or failing to eat properly will generally not hurt your baby- it will hurt you. Your body will rob from you what it needs for the baby, and you will feel the effects.
- Falling, or getting kicked or hit in the stomach. In most cases, your baby is so well protected in amniotic fluid, that only you would be hurt during a fall or blow to your stomach. You should always seek medical attention if this occurs, but generally these events (especially when they happen in the first trimester) do not cause pregnancy loss.
- Car accidents.Unless your stomach and uterus become punctured, or you experience a period of time when your heart or breathing stops, it is unlikely that your baby would die.
- Sex.Lovemaking has no adverse effects on your baby. You may experience spotting after sex , but this is simply because your cervix is very soft and the blood vessels are very prominent and dilated. Unless you have been instructed by your doctor to refrain, there is no reason for concern.
- Exercise. Working out can actually have benefits for you and your baby if you follow a few, simple rules. Do not raise your heart rate excessively; your doctor can determine your limit. This is not a miscarriage factor, but overdoing it can reduce the amount of oxygen the baby is getting.
Adapted from the book Hope is Like the Sun © Copyright 2004
Can Hitting Your Pregnant Belly Hurt Your Baby?
A stranger's elbow here, a kitchen counter there—as your pregnancy progresses, you may feel like your abdomen's on a collision course with the world. You might even find yourself wondering, "How much pressure can a pregnant belly take?"
It's not just your imagination: Many factors during pregnancy make your belly bump-prone, such as loose ligaments and joints, a growing girth (you're a larger target and a little off-balance), and a feeling of being somewhat distracted.
Thankfully, there's no need to worry every time you bump your tummy; even a front-forward fall or a kick from your toddler is unlikely to hurt your baby-to-be.
"Mother Nature provides a safe and protected environment for a fetus, which floats in amniotic fluid in the amniotic sac, which in turn is protected by the muscles of both the uterus and the abdomen," says Owen Montgomery, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Allegheny University of the Health Sciences. The spine in back and the pelvis and rib cage in front also form bony barriers.
When to Call the Doctor
Even with your baby's built-in protection, let your obstetrician know if you've taken a spill directly onto your belly, if you've been in a minor fender bender, or if you've suffered a blow to your stomach from another adult. They may have you come in to monitor the fetal heart rate.
Seek immediate medical attention if your baby isn't as active as before (movement about five times in a two-hour period when you're lying down is normal if you're in your second or third trimester), or if you have bleeding, vaginal discharge, contractions, or cramping within 12 hours of an incident.
Trauma to the uterus in any form (a hard punch or kick to the uterus, a fall directly onto your abdomen, a car accident) can cause something called a placental abruption. This is a condition where the placenta pulls away from the wall of the uterus. In a mild case, there may be some vaginal bleeding and/or contractions with no consequence for the baby. But, in a severe case, a large portion of the placenta pulls away and could cause problems for the baby.
Protecting Your Pregnant Belly
"Gentle pushing on your belly as it gets bigger is fine," says Dr. Michele Hakakha, M.D., an OB-GYN in Beverly Hills and coauthor of Expecting 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice for Your Pregnancy. "Hard jabs, kicks, or punches can be dangerous, particularly as you get farther along in your pregnancy."
Take extra precautions to be safe from slipping. Watch out for ice, snow and wet leaves, and newly waxed or mopped floors. Wear sensible shoes—no slick soles or high heels—that fit properly. Be careful getting in and out of the tub or shower, and use the handrails on stairs. And always wear a seatbelt with the lap portion under your abdomen and the shoulder strap between your breasts and to the side of your belly.
Miscarriage stomach punching your cause
I'm in my first trimester and my partner hit me in the stomach. Will it harm my baby?
In your first trimester, your baby is well-protected because your womb (uterus) is tucked in to your pelvis. Your womb has strong, muscular walls and, along with the amniotic fluid, does a good job of cushioning your baby.
But, your belly will probably be bruised, and you may have some bleeding inside. In the first trimester, there's also the risk that a heavy blow to the belly can cause miscarriage. That's why it's important to have a check-up with your midwife or doctor as soon as possible.
Another reason to get help is that if your routine blood testsshowed that you have a rhesus negative blood group, you may need to have an early anti-D injection. This will prevent problems caused by bleeding, if your blood and your baby's blood mixes.
Domestic violenceis thought to affect a quarter of women at some time in their lives, and pregnancy makes you particularly vulnerable. In some relationships, pregnancy can even be the trigger for violence, or for abuse to get worse.
You need to focus on what’s safest for you, and any other children you have, as well as your unborn baby. It's important to think ahead, because if you are hit again, it may be more serious next time, especially if it happens later in your pregnancy.
There's a risk that if your partner hits you again in the belly, it could cause the placenta to detach from your womb (placental abruption), or cause serious damage to your womb.
There's an even more serious risk that a blow could be hard enough to cause a leak into your bloodstream of amniotic fluid (amniotic fluid embolism). This is very rare, but it could prove fatal for you and your baby.
You can seek help in many ways. You can speak to your midwife, GP, obstetrician, social worker or health visitor. They will put you in touch with people who can help. Anything you tell them is private.You and the health professional you talk to can work out a plan of action, if you want. The plan can include ways for you to get support from friends and family, access a refuge or to be referred to a specialist domestic abuse service. Nothing will be done without your agreement.
Seeking support to leave a violent relationship can seem very difficult. You may be scared that you'll never manage on your own, or that if you tell someone what’s happened, your baby may be taken into care once she’s born. This isn’t so. Social workers and other authorities will want to work with you so that you and your baby stay safe.
Find practical help and emotional support:
- Women’s Aid and Refuge offer safe places to stay, as well as practical and emotional support. They share a free, National Domestic Violence 24-hour helpline on 0808 200 0247.
- Victim Support gives free and confidential support, whether or not the crime has been reported to the police. Call 0808 16 89 111.
- Citizens’ Advice Bureau can be contacted on 03444 111 444 for England, 03444 77 20 20 for Wales, 0808 800 9060 for Scotland, 028 9023 1120 for Northern Ireland. Or call The Samaritans on 116 123. They can tell you about local services and sources of support.
- If you have a children's centre in your area, you can talk in confidence to a worker there about getting help. Find a children's centre near you.
- This government leaflet has lots more information on how to escape from a violent relationship.
You can also join a private group in our supportive communitywhere you can talk to other women who've experienced abuse.
Police say a woman punched her stomach to end her 24-week pregnancy. They're calling it a homicide.
Police say a woman who punched her abdomen to end a pregnancy is now at the center of a homicide investigation.
The woman, 21, gave birth at a Nashville hospital in March, 24 weeks into her pregnancy. The baby boy, who was never given a name, lived for less than two hours, dying from blunt force trauma to the head.
On Friday, the department announced that detectives believe the mother hit herself in the abdominal area and allowed a young relative to sit on her stomach in an effort to end the child's life.
No charges have currently been filed against the woman, pending a review by the district attorney's office into Metro police's investigation.
Case shows similarities to Murfreesboro coat-hanger abortion
In May, Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law a bill that bans abortions after 20 weeks if a doctor determines the fetus is viable.
Under the law, physicians in Tennessee can face a felony charge for performing an abortion after 20 weeks without proving that an abortion of a viable fetus was necessary to save a woman's life or prevent substantial harm to the mother.
Tennessee is among 20 other states that explicitly ban abortions beyond viability.
In January, 32-year-old Anna Yocca, of Murfreesboro, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge after spending more than a year in jail on attempted murder charges in a similar case.
Police say, at 24 weeks pregnant, Yocca in 2015 attempted to perform an abortion on herself using a coat hanger. Her boyfriend took her to a hospital due to the amount of blood and her concern for her safety.
Two weeks later, she gave birth to the 1.5-pound baby at Saint Thomas Midtown in Nashville. Murfreesboro Police Det. Tommy Roberts said doctors advised him the boy's "quality of life will be forever harmed."
The child was placed into the custody of the Department of Children's Services.
In Yocca's case, charges were twice reduced before she eventually entered a plea agreement for attempted procurement of a miscarriage. She was sentenced to a year in jail, which she had already served while awaiting trial.
Earlier in 2015, Haslam into law legislation requiring women seeking abortions to receive in-person counseling from a doctor and wait at least 48 hours before having the procedure performed.
All nine Tennessee abortion clinics, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, have joined a federal lawsuit to challenge the 48-hour waiting period, among other state abortion rules.
Anita Wadhwani and The Daily News Journal contributed to this story.
Reach Natalie Allison at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.
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One night in May 2009, Jocelyn packed a backpack and left the ramshackle house in Naples, Utah, where she lived with her mom and two of her five siblings. She was six months pregnant—a condition that had caused the 17-year-old to drop out of high school and become alienated from her Mormon family. That night she’d broken up with her new boyfriend, who, though not the father, was her biggest source of support.
She planned to hitchhike 2,000 miles to Florida, where her dad lived, even though they hadn’t spoken in years. She only made it to a gas station a block away before she stopped, in tears. Aaron Harrison, a “Goth” 21-year-old, approached Jocelyn and asked if he could help. “I was a mess, I was crying, I didn’t know what to do,” she remembers. “I told him everything. I even told him about thinking of ending the pregnancy.” He asked if she wanted to go to his place nearby and talk.
Jocelyn (which is not her real name), a petite woman with wavy brown hair and a soft twang, told Harrison that her boyfriend had suggested an abortion could be caused by a punch in the stomach, and that they had even discussed resolving her pregnancy problem this way. So Harrison struck a deal with her. If he beat her up so she would miscarry, Jocelyn would give him the $150 she’d brought for her trip. If anyone asked, she’d say she had been sexually assaulted.
He was more than cooperative. Once inside his house, he punched her in the stomach, slapped her face, and bit her neck. Jocelyn says they also had sex, thinking it would help their cover story.
But things quickly got out of hand—”he hit me really hard”—and Jocelyn ran out of the house, shocked, bruised, and appalled by what they’d done. “I felt so sad for my baby,” she tells me. “I felt awful that I’d just agreed to any of it. But I also felt like a victim.” She called her mom and told her she’d been sexually assaulted. Jocelyn’s mom took her to the police station, where she was questioned by a detective. Jocelyn stuck with her story at first, but the cop kept questioning her, she says, well into the middle of the night. After she finally confessed, the police took her to the hospital. Her unborn baby was alive.
The next day, Jocelyn was arrested. “The county attorney said, ‘Take her straight to detention,'” she says. “‘This is insane, this is unacceptable, this is attempted murder.'” Jocelyn was moved to Split Mountain, a juvenile center, and charged with solicitation of murder, which would have been a felony if she were an adult. Harrison was also arrested and charged with attempted murder.
“That was the worst moment of my life,” Jocelyn, now 25, tells me from her home in Vernal, Utah, with two young children cooing behind her.
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump said women who end their pregnancies ought to face “some form of punishment.” He was met with an onslaught of criticism, even from anti-abortion groups, which characterized his position as “completely out of touch with the pro-life movement.” Before efforts to decriminalize abortion began in the late 1960s, women were rarely prosecuted for attempting to access the procedure. Anti-abortion advocates argued then, as most do now, that women, like their fetuses, were victims. After Trump’s comments, March for Life issued a press release with the headline “No Pro-Life American Advocates Punishment for Abortion.” Jeanne Mancini, the organization’s president, went further, saying, “Being pro-life means wanting what is best for the mother and the baby. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.”
Trump quickly walked back his statement; doctors, he said, not women, should be punished. But his remarks exposed a tension at the heart of the pro-life legal movement: How can abortion become illegal without punishing the women who seek them? The question has come into greater relief over the last several decades, as state and federal laws have evolved to regard fetal deaths as potential homicides. With Republicans now in control of federal judicial nominations and most statehouses, growing gaps in the abortion rights landscape seem likely to drive more women to self-abort, just as several high-profile cases have shown prosecutors willing to bring charges against those who take desperate measures to end their pregnancies.
“The county attorney said, ‘Take her straight to detention,'” she says. “‘This is insane, this is unacceptable, this is attempted murder.'”
Mother Jones has identified at least two dozen cases since Roe v. Wade in which women faced investigation or prosecution for a self-induced abortion, according to a review of news reports, scholarly articles, and court documents. But Jill E. Adams, who leads the Self-Induced Abortion Legal Team at the University of California-Berkeley, says the real number is unknown. In the eight years following Jocelyn’s arrest, eight women, almost all in the Midwestern or Southern United States, have been investigated, charged, or prosecuted for trying to end pregnancies, or for being suspected of doing so. About half the women charged since Roe, including Jocelyn, were accused of homicide, manslaughter, or a related crime—charges enabled by “fetal homicide laws,” which are on the books in 38 states and make killing a fetus a crime.
Fetal homicide laws are the result of a two-pronged strategy that anti-abortion groups adopted after their 1973 Supreme Court defeat in Roe: They pushed state laws that made abortions harder to get and expanded the legal rights of fetuses so that the public, and eventually the courts, would begin to regard the unborn—no matter what stage of development—as children. Advocates started by working to define life as beginning at conception in nonabortion contexts—property or contract law, for instance.
But criminal prosecutions of anyone who killed a fetus soon followed. In one of the earliest such cases, attorneys for Americans United for Life, the nation’s most influential pro-life legal group, fought to get an Illinois man prosecuted for murder after he shot a pregnant woman, allegedly killing her unborn child. (He was found not guilty; a judge was not convinced his bullet had killed the fetus.)
In 1984, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state’s vehicular homicide statute should apply to a driver who crashed into a pedestrian and killed her eight-and-a-half-month-old fetus. In 1986, a year after the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the state’s vehicular homicide law shouldn’t apply to fetuses, the Legislature stepped in to pass a fetal homicide law starting from the moment of conception.
These rulings and laws represented the first cracks in the so-called “born alive” rule, which required a child to be alive and out of the womb before it could be considered the victim of a homicide; the standard had been used by virtually every jurisdiction in the United States for more than a century. In 1987, Clarke Forsythe, a new Americans United for Life lawyer, released a paper (paywall) with model fetal homicide legislation aimed at further unraveling the born-alive standard. He led a team of young pro-life lawyers and advocates who argued that in an era with technology that is capable of determining the precise status of a fetus in utero and even, in rare occasions, the cause of death, the born-alive standard was arcane and immoral. “Modern medicine made that rule obsolete,” Forsythe told me.
By 1994, 17 states had fetal homicide laws on the books. Mary Ziegler, a legal historian and author of the book After Roe, says the particular genius of fetal homicide laws was “you could convince lawmakers to pass them even if they were uneasy with the pro-life movement. They were personhood laws, but they didn’t apply to abortion.”
Mountain ranges and hills surround Uintah County, where Jocelyn grew up. Giant dinosaur statues are scattered throughout the area, an homage to nearby paleontology digs. For decades, many of Uintah’s 38,000 mostly Mormon residents worked extracting oil and shale gas. Jocelyn and her five siblings grew up in Jensen, with a population of fewer than 500, in the northern part of the county. Her mother waitressed and her father worked as a carpenter until a back injury forced him to stop. When Jocelyn was 10, he left without a goodbye. Jocelyn’s mom struggled with addiction, and eventually she moved her family into a small condemned home, with no running water or electricity, on her parents’ property in nearby Naples.
By the time she was in 11th grade, Jocelyn, fed up with her mother’s problems and the family’s living situation, moved into a small apartment in Naples, a town lined with fly-fishing shops, industrial facilities, and motels. She was working toward a welding certificate in high school and had started dating a senior she met in class. Then she found out she was pregnant. She knew her ex was the father and her new boyfriend wouldn’t raise someone else’s kid.
“I kind of spiraled,” Jocelyn remembers. “I started to show, and then I was embarrassed to go to school, so I dropped out.” She moved back in with her mother and brothers. Lights and space heaters were powered by extension cords running from her grandparents’ house. If Jocelyn had to go to the bathroom after the doors were locked for the night, she’d have to pee outside.
“There were no other options. There was nothing else.”
She struggled with what she should do, weighing the pressure she felt from her new boyfriend to have an abortion. “I didn’t think abortion was wrong or right or indifferent. I was just a 16-year-old with a boyfriend who was the closest person to me at that time.” Utah’s nearest abortion clinic was about 170 miles away in Salt Lake City, and Jocelyn convinced her mom to drive her the three-plus hours across mountains and snow and pay several hundred dollars to end her pregnancy. According to court records, clinicians told her an abortion would be impossible because she was too far along. At the time, state law banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy; Jocelyn does not recall being so far along. (Later that year, the Legislature moved the limit to viability, usually considered 24 weeks.)
On the ride home, Jocelyn remembered the ultrasound and hearing the tiny heartbeat; she worried that abortion wasn’t for her. Adoption was one option, but she couldn’t imagine giving the baby to an anonymous couple. After being turned away from the clinic, Jocelyn swallowed a handful of pills in a failed suicide attempt. “I tried to just get rid of us both. And when I did survive, there was even more disappointment,” she says. “There were no other options. There was nothing else.”
Following success in the states—26 had passed fetal homicide laws by the end of the ’90s—then-Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and other congressional Republicans introduced a bill in September 1999 that would make it illegal to injure or kill a fetus in the commission of a federal crime. Their proposal, called the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, mirrored state laws, with one key difference: Most state laws only protected fetuses starting from some point after the first trimester, but the federal bill sought to cover fetuses from conception. Democrats argued that the measure encroached on abortion rights, and President Bill Clinton threatened to veto it. As a countermeasure, Democrats, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), introduced a “single victim” bill that increased federal punishment for harm done to a pregnant woman, without mentioning her fetus. Neither House bill made it over to the Senate, and the same battle played out for the next three and a half years.
Then, on Christmas Eve in 2002, Laci Peterson—supposedly on a fishing trip with her husband, Scott—went missing. She was eight and a half months pregnant with a son she’d named Conner. Scott’s odd behavior quickly made him the focus of the investigation. When a mistress came forward, three months of tabloid coverage ensued before Laci Peterson’s body washed up on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. Scott Peterson was eventually convicted of murder. At his sentencing, Laci’s mother read a statement to the court, written in Conner’s voice. “Daddy,” Sharon Rocha read, “why are you killing Mommy and me?” Scott was sentenced to death.
Congressional Republicans had found their rallying cry. In 2003, while the Peterson case was ongoing, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) introduced the Unborn Victims of Violence Act yet again, now dubbing it Laci and Conner’s Law. Rocha wrote to the bill’s sponsors to thank them, adding that she hoped for a future where “no surviving mother, grandmother, or other family member is ever again told, ‘We’re sorry, but in the eyes of the law, there is no dead baby.'” On March 25, 2004, the Senate passed the bill in a 61-38 vote.
At the signing ceremony a week later, President George W. Bush praised Laci and Conner’s Law: “Any time an expectant mother is a victim of violence, two lives are in the balance, each deserving protection, and each deserving justice.”
With the federal law in place, fetal homicide legislation gained new momentum. In several states, legislators enlisted a survivor whose pregnancy had ended after an attack, or a deceased woman’s family, to become the public face of their campaign—Alexa’s Law in Kansas, for instance, or Ethan’s Law in North Carolina. Americans United for Life and other pro-life organizations pointed out that domestic violence can spike during pregnancy and argued that fetal homicide laws could deter abusive fathers. With the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act as a model, the newest state fetal homicide laws protected fetuses from the moment of conception; several states with laws that previously only applied after viability amended them to start earlier in pregnancy.
Unsurprisingly, abortion rights advocates argued the measures were part of a broader push to roll back Roe, this time by pitting women against the fetuses they’re carrying. “There is no way the state can protect embryos and fetuses separate from the woman without subtracting the pregnant woman,” says Lynn Paltrow, the founder of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, warning that if people come to see fetuses as human beings who can be murdered by an angry boyfriend, they will extend that idea to abortions sought or performed by the woman herself.
But pro-life groups dismissed such criticisms, noting that most fetal homicide laws have exceptions for abortion or other actions (intentional or otherwise) a woman might take to end a pregnancy. “Pro-life legislators and pro-life leaders do not support the prosecution of women and will not push for such a policy,” Forsythe, now the acting president of Americans United for Life, wrote in 2010.
In June 2009, a month after her arrest, Jocelyn skipped trial and was advised by her public defender not to challenge the charge of solicitation of murder. She was sentenced to detention until age 21 and transferred to a juvenile secure facility south of Salt Lake City.
After nearly three months behind bars, she went into labor in August and was transported to a hospital in handcuffs and leg shackles. After giving birth, she was allowed to hold and breastfeed her new daughter while locked to the bed. Leaving her baby at the hospital “was the hardest part,” Jocelyn remembers. “Once they start moving and you watch them come out of you, you love them—they are you. And you can’t even fathom life without them. And then they’re gone. And you’re alone again. And people looked at me and told me I deserved it.” Her daughter, born with a clean bill of health, was adopted by Jocelyn’s aunt, who lives two hours from Naples.
Meanwhile, Jocelyn and her mom found a new lawyer, Richard King, who petitioned the juvenile court to reverse her plea deal, arguing that she had broken no law and that her previous lawyer, who had also represented her ex-boyfriend after he was charged with producing pornographic pictures of her, had a conflict of interest. In October 2009, a juvenile court judge, Larry A. Steele, agreed to reverse the deal.
The judge may have rescinded Jocelyn’s plea deal, but she still had to face the state’s charges in a new trial. King’s defense focused on the text of Utah’s 2009 fetal homicide law, which defined homicide as a person causing the death of another person, “including an unborn child”—except when that death is the result of an abortion. He argued that Jocelyn’s actions had been part of an abortion attempt and demanded the charges be dismissed. Steele agreed: “No one should interpret this ruling to mean this court thinks the minor’s conduct was justifiable. What the minor did was terribly wrong. However, only the legislature can determine whether such conduct as set forth here should be criminal.” The state appealed the decision, but Jocelyn was free.
In 2011, after nearly 100 new state-level abortion restrictions had been enacted, a New York Times analysis found that Google searches for “how to have a miscarriage” or “how to do a coat hanger abortion” had jumped 40 percent compared with the year before.
Days after her release, Carl Wimmer, an ex-cop who was then a prominent Mormon state representative, told reporters that he was going to close the “loophole” that Jocelyn’s lawyer successfully used in her defense: “Abortion and right to life is the top issue for me, and it is something I feel very passionate about.” A month later he introduced a new fetal homicide bill that redefined abortion as a medical procedure performed in the care of a physician. “[Jocelyn] revealed an extreme weakness in the law, that a pregnant woman could do anything she wanted to do—it did not matter how grotesque or brutal—all the way up until the date of birth to kill her unborn child,” Wimmer toldTheNation. He boasted that his bill would make Utah the only state to “hold a woman accountable for killing her unborn child” in cases other than a medical abortion. In March 2010, less than a year after Jocelyn’s arrest, Wimmer’s bill became law.
While Aaron Harrison pleaded guilty in 2009 to attempted murder, Jocelyn’s case climbed to the state’s highest court. In December 2011, the Utah Supreme Court sided with the state, reversing the juvenile court’s decision to dismiss the charges. She was once again at square one, this time under the shadow of the new and more punitive law. Though the law wouldn’t apply to her, a draining and very public trial still loomed. She wanted out. Jocelyn pleaded guilty to solicitation of a crime, a second-degree felony. The charge was reduced to a misdemeanor after she completed 60 hours of community service.
Thus far, Utah is the only state that has strengthened a fetal homicide law in direct response to a self-induced abortion. But several recent cases have shown there are prosecutors ready to use the laws to punish women who perform their own abortions. The methods can be desperately brutal. Women have been targeted for shooting themselves, stabbing their bellies, and drinking toxic levels of herbal tea. In 2015, a Tennessee woman named Anna Yocca was charged with attempted first-degree murder after allegedly using a coat hanger to try to end her pregnancy. She took a plea deal this January after spending a year and a half in jail. In 2009, Indiana amended its 1998 fetal homicide law after a robber shot a pregnant bank teller in the abdomen. In 2013, prosecutors used the law against Purvi Patel, who went to the emergency room after taking pills she bought online to end her pregnancy and experiencing heavy bleeding. A pro-life doctor turned her in to the police. After three years behind bars, Patel was convicted of feticide and neglect of a dependent. She was sentenced to 20 years before the state’s appeals court overturned the feticide conviction last September, accusing prosecutors of “unsettling” overreach.
“I don’t think any of us have any sense of how common home abortion is right now,” says Adams. But surveys sampling the approximately 900,000 women who get clinical abortions each year help give a rough sketch. A national study found that about 2.6 percent of patients reported taking drugs, herbs, or vitamins before seeking an abortion. A 2014 study in abortion-hostile Texas found that 7 percent of patients surveyed in 2012 said they’d done something in the hopes of having a miscarriage before coming in. In 2011, after nearly 100 new state-level abortion restrictions had been enacted, a New York Times analysis found that Google searches for “how to have a miscarriage” or “how to do a coat hanger abortion” had jumped 40 percent compared with the year before. The state with the highest rate of searches, Mississippi, has just two abortion providers. The Times noted that a few hundred searches occurred nationwide for information on inducing abortion by being punched in the stomach.
Having an abortion at home, without the supervision of a physician, is not necessarily unsafe. Misoprostol, a prescription drug in America that is given over the counter in other countries, effectively ends upward of 88 percent of pregnancies within the first 12 weeks. When taken with mifepristone, a prescription-only drug usually dispensed under supervision of a doctor, the effectiveness jumps to over 95 percent. But if the Trump years bring further restrictions to choice, the number of women looking to end a pregnancy outside of clinical care seems certain to increase. Even safe drugs—whether purchased from online dark markets or provided by abortion activists—can be misused or abused or fail, sending women to the emergency room to face not only life-threatening complications, but prosecutors backed by fetal homicide laws. “In the new political reality of 2017,” Adams says, “we could foresee an emboldened anti-choice movement that places women who end their own pregnancies in the bull’s-eye.”
Jocelyn never left the Uintah Basin. When I visit, she takes me on a drive up to Split Mountain, the namesake of the detention center she once called home. A massive cliff face that hulks over the Green River, it’s been a place of solace and reflection for Jocelyn over the last eight years. After being released, she searched for structure and found the Jehovah’s Witness faith and a husband who shares it. Her religious convictions have changed her views on abortion: No longer ambivalent, Jocelyn now believes it is wrong. She’s not in touch with the daughter she birthed while incarcerated. In her community, she can’t talk about her own abortion attempt for fear of judgment. For her husband, an auto mechanic in Naples, the decisions Jocelyn made as a teenager are referred to just as “her past.”
With the youngest of their two daughters, not yet a year old, in tow, we walk to the base of Split Mountain, where our figures are dwarfed. Though her views on abortion have changed, Jocelyn remarks that women who end their own pregnancies aren’t “heartless.” She wishes she’d made a different choice that night. But she understands why she didn’t. “It was the fact that I was left up to my own options, which were…nothing,” she says. But she doesn’t judge other young women. “I know being put in that situation, how desperate women can be.”