29/06/2011 11:55 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Should Women Who Take Drugs In Pregnancy Face Murder Charges?

There are some newspaper stories you read that you can't believe are actually true – and I'm not talking about who's getting it on with who in la-la land.

Over the weekend it was reported that women in the US are being prosecuted for murder in relation to the deaths of their unborn children. These aren't cases of straightforward terminations, which are still legal in all states (despite the pro-lifers' best efforts). These are women whose unborn babies have died, and who then face the horror of being accused of causing that death because of their behaviour during pregnancy.

Take the case of Rennie Gibbs, from Mississippi. She became pregnant at the age of 15 but suffered a stillbirth at 36 weeks. When the authorities discovered that she had a cocaine habit, she was charged with the "depraved-heart murder" of her child, though there is no evidence that drug abuse had anything to do with the baby's death.

The charge carries a life sentence.

Then there's Bei Bei Shuai, a 34-year-old who tried to kill herself after her boyfriend left her when she was 33 weeks pregnant. She gave birth a week later but the baby, who she named Angel, survived for only four days.

She is now in an Indianapolis prison cell facing charges of murdering her baby.

Within reason, nobody wants to see women acting selfishly while they are pregnant (I've seen mothers-to-be lighting up outside the antenatal unit and wanted to thump them one). But in both of these cases, and many more, women who are clearly vulnerable and in need of help to cope with their existing problems are being penalised for also suffering the trauma of the loss of their unborn baby.

What on earth do prosecutors aim to achieve by prosecuting these women for murder? They can't seriously believe that the threat of prosecution will act as a behaviour-changer to women with drug habits or other serious problems. And anyway, as defence lawyers have pointed out, if intentionally ending a pregnancy through abortion is legal, how can unintentionally ending a pregnancy, by smoking or drinking or taking drugs, be illegal?

The worst of it is that in many cases, laws brought in to protect children from other kinds of parental abuse and neglect are being misused in what the National Advocates for Pregnant Women see as a dangerous assault on the rights of pregnant women. In Alabama, for example, "chemical endangerment" laws brought in to protect children from parents who prepared drugs in the home are increasingly being used in this way.

Amanda Kimbrough, for example, was arrested six months after the death of her baby, who survived for just 19 minutes after being born. She was charged with "chemical endangerment" on the grounds that she had taken drugs during the pregnancy (a charge she denies).

She is now waiting for an appeal ruling from the higher courts. If she loses she faced a ten-year prison sentence. She has three other children. "I'm just living one day at a time, looking after my other kids," she told The Guardian. "They say I'm a criminal, how do I answer that? I'm a good mother."