A Case to Watch

In my sometimes-sleepy little neck of the woods, Indianapolis (nee “India-NO-place,” “Naptown”) we have a big-time court case coming in September. It arises from an unusual story.

At a Chinese restaurant, among thousands like it across North America where General Tso’s Chicken and Szechuan Beef fill Westerners with “ethnic” cuisine, a 36-year old Chinese immigrant works long shifts, often seven days a week, cooking huge pots of rice and chatting with her co-workers. She is also out of jail on bond, and awaits her trial. Bei Bei Shuai came to Indianapolis from Shanghai with her husband just over ten years ago, but the couple divorced in 2010. She then began a relationship with another man (who was apparently still married) and conceived a child.

In the eighth month of her pregnancy, the baby’s father broke it off with Bei Bei, leaving her in tears in a parking lot. Overcome with grief, she left a suicide note and swallowed rat poison, an anticoagulant rodenticide that causes death by interrupting normal blood clotting so that its victims bleed to death. Ten days later, her baby girl, Angel, was born by emergency C-section. The baby died of cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) three days later.

Indiana has relatively strong feticide laws that declare that one who causes death to a human being in utero is guilty of feticide or even murder. A thug who shoots and kills a 7-month pregnant woman and her baby may be found guilty of two murders. After Bei Bei had wept and clung to her dying daughter, after Angel had died, the doctors called police. Bei Bei was arrested and spent 435 days in jail, released on an unprecedented (for a murder case) order from an Indiana state court.

This is a horrifically sad story, on many levels. For all our pathologies, America still likes to see itself as a “city on a hill,” where immigrants find great opportunity, not rejection, loss, and imprisonment. The ethics of this case are hard to distill apart from the emotions. Christians know a God of justice and a God of grace. I deliberately told the facts in a way that can create sympathy for the mother, who has now lost so much and may yet lose more. But my sorrow for her is tempered by the reality of the awfulness of what happened to her daughter, for whom the hope of the city on a hill is also lost.

The world at large sees big issues at stake here, and the usual suspects would be expected to step in, to be sure that their imperiled agendas receive due recognition. In Indianapolis, an April rally was held, attended by Bei Bei’s attorney (itself a rather unprecedented move, that was criticized by the prosecutor’s office as an effort to sway potential jurors). The event, organized by the oxymoronically-named “Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice,” and several local university students, was called “Free Bei Bei Shuai.” (This itself is an oxymoron, where the person to be “freed” was actually in attendance) She was deeply moved by this show of support, as anyone would be, and photos circulated of her walking through the cheering crowd with her attorney holding both her hands for literal and figurative support. Mental health advocacy groups concerned about the impact of what is considered an act of mental illness, suicide, becoming criminalized were also present. Bei Bei’s list of new friends, I daresay, can see well past her as a person and envision what she means to a movement that fears any loss of reproductive freedom.

But curiously silent are the others, those who feel deeply that the tragic facts of Bei Bei’s life do not obviate the greater tragedy that a baby’s mother, in her distress, nonetheless knowingly took something that would likely end the life of her soon-to-be-born baby. At six months of gestation, the basic functions of the hippocampus and amygdala already can sense fundamental threats, even as they cannot respond with anything like language, and I grieve the reality that Angel’s biggest threat was posed by her own mother. And I would love to make noise about the life that was taken because of an act that may have been done in desperation, but was genuinely selfish nonetheless. But there have been no rallies for Angel in Indianapolis, no fundraisers of which I am aware for pro-life causes based on this case.

I take that relative public silence, for now, as a positive thing. True, we have seen some vitriol against Bei Bei in our own Indianapolis Star, with letters to the editor shouting “Hand me a Kleenex!” in regard to her plight. But the usual voices on the pro-life side, among them the Susan B. Anthony Society and National Right to Life, have had little to say publicly. There is a time to speak loudly, and this is not it.

A bit of silence is wise here on three fronts:

First, it is unwise to set the sails of a movement upon the winds of a single case. Humans and Americans and jurors and judges are intellectual and emotional and sentimental creatures. Which among those characteristics will predominate in a case is unclear. We should not become overly-elated if “personhood” is ascribed to Angel (who, indeed, was very much a person), nor should we become dejected if the justice system ultimately rejects that idea in this case. We know the right answer, and the work in support of human dignity continues.

Second, we are societally-confused. A woman who aborts her baby is offered a right to privacy, may even be considered brave if she spares her child with significant disabilities from a life a great difficulty, but a woman who drinks vodka throughout her baby’s gestation, then gives birth to child that will burden our healthcare and welfare programs with a fetal-alcohol child is contemptible. A third party can be a murderer if responsible for the death of a fetus; the child’s mother, on whom the child is most dependent and who will, after birth, have the greatest rights and strongest responsibilities for the child, is somehow legally-exempt from any complicity if willfully-endangering the child’s life. Trusting the legal system to correctly judge this case in a culture that is ambivalent is risky indeed.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, those who take a high view of life must recognize that our participation in public policy and in effecting justice in the nation and culture in which we live is an important, but subsidiary, role to our most substantial one, that of stewards of the gospel. This case, like so much of life in a world that has yet to achieve its full measure of redemption, is a mess. I can barely relay the details of all this without tears filling my eyes for EVERYONE involved. I would love to engage the young woman at the rally who wore a homemade t-shirt that read “Personhood for Pregnant Women!” The statement is ludicrous in the context of this case, and I really wanted to head down to Indy’s City Market, where the rally was held, to let her know that, and why, and what I think of it. What a wretched message that would have sent. How, rather, I wish I were more able to shine light on this darkness and marvel at the personhood of those at the rally, and Bei Bei, and Angel, and myself, all created in the image of God, regardless of the outcome of the September trial. It’s a mess, but messes are why we need Good News, of justice and mercy and grace.

We need keep this case on our radars, and be prepared to talk about it, because we will NEED to be and others already are. And we need to be wise stewards of that Good News as we take part in that conversation.

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Steve Phillips
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We serve a God of justice and mercy and grace and it is hard to help a cynical and self-centered world understand what that means. Situations like this are not occasions to win arguments that cause people to lose sight of the fact that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy and grace. Both the mother and daughter in this case are among the weak and powerless for whom God has expressed his particular love and concern. We need to express that in a way that is surprising to those who see a situation like this as an… Read more »

Jon Holmlund
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Jon Holmlund

A great post and a great comment from Steve. Maybe our first task in this case is to mourn. I would not rush to condemn this woman. I would also not affirm, much less celebrate, her action. The legal matter will be for the court to decide. But sometimes individual cases do shed powerful light on the broader issues, and for that, I give you the Gosnell case. The Bei Bei Shuai case will likely garner much public attention. The Gosnell case, rather less so, at least until now. When that verdict is in, it will be time to comment… Read more »