Legal/Ethical Train Wreck in Indiana: The Case of the Poisoned Fetus

Mother, failed suicide, accused murderer, and ethics train wreck engineer.

If there are logical and ethical holes in a law, you can count on a case eventually coming along that will make them obvious and painful. Thus it is that the the case of Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant living in Indiana, was concocted by the vengeful Gods of Inconsistency to highlight some of the legal problems in two notorious ethical gray areas, abortion and suicide. I’m not going to even try to solve the mess. It’s hard enough to describe it.

Suicide is illegal in Indiana, but attempted suicide is not. In Indiana, as in most jurisdictions, however, if one’s unsuccessful  suicide kills another by accident, that could be prosecuted as manslaughter, through the doctrine of transferred intent. In the case of Shuai, she drank poison, ostensibly to kill herself. But she also wrote a note saying that she was “taking the baby.” Of course, when a pregnant woman kills herself, that usually suggests that she understands that her act will kill her unborn child as well.  Perhaps she was trying to kill herself and wasn’t considering the baby. Perhaps she was trying to kill the baby, and not herself. Perhaps she was trying to kill both herself and her child.

What happened, however, is that she lived. The baby was born, but died shortly thereafter as a consequence, prosecutors say, of the poison Shuai swallowed.

Indiana allows abortion, but the fetus was viable by the time the mother ingested the poison: it could not be legally aborted. Once it is viable, the intentionally killing of a fetus, even by the mother (or the intentional killing of a non-viable fetus by another without the mother’s consent) is murder under Indiana law. Thus Bei Bei Shuai is awaiting trial for murder.

Pro-abortion and women’s groups argue that if she was to be found guilty, it would create a precedent for future charges to be brought against women for smoking, drinking alcohol, using drugs, or engaging in other deliberate conduct that results in the death of the child before or after birth. We also know that had Bei Bei had a late-term abortion, she would never have been prosecuted for murder.

This is what society asks for with laws that accord the same living being  protected and unprotected status according to arbitrary and variable criteria. Combine it with our schizophrenic treatment of suicide, and the tracks were aligned for this train wreck that is challenges law, ethics and logic.

What is the right result? Ethically, I think Bei Bei Shuai intended to kill her child, and if it is determined that the cause of death was related to the poison, I think she should be punished accordingly. Legally, however, I’m not sure that  the result will or should be, and even ethically, I think the long term policy implications are troubling if she is found guilty.

Hard cases, it is said, make bad law. They also show us the limits of mankind’s ability to conceive ethics rules that will make sense in all circumstances.


Pointer: ABA Journal

Facts and Graphic: Indy Star

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

16 thoughts on “Legal/Ethical Train Wreck in Indiana: The Case of the Poisoned Fetus

  1. If defending the innocent who are unable to protect themselves was the most important principle this would not be complicated at all. Unfortunately the long term policy complications are a result of losing our way on that point. In a society that gives this woman the right to end a young life in most other circumstances it becomes hypocritical to punish her now.

  2. Infanticide, pure and simple. It doesn’t matter that this woman was trying to kill herself and failed. While she was carrying life within her, she was responsible for that life. If she had waited until after giving birth to try and “off” herself, that would have been another case.

  3. I don’t see it as a train wreck. Abortion isn’t a defense against a charge of murder, it’s a loophole for “murder”, isn’t it?

    I guess what I’m getting at is that there is a process to abortion that when done correctly qualifies for the legal “loophole”. It’s my opinion that when the process isn’t acceptably followed, it can’t be abortion; therefore, it must be murder.

    ….let the flaming commence….

      • I think we’ll end up on a difference of opinion on this, and that’s okay. I simply don’t see it as impossible to reconcile, or even difficult. What she did was not abortion. Ergo, it was murder.

  4. I know this is rather late, but from what I can tell after reading Indiana State code, suicide is not illegal in Indiana, as in a number of states.

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