By Maria Sole Campinoti, Holly Yan, Zenebou Sylla and Samantha Beech, CNN
(CNN) — An Ohio woman who suffered a miscarriage and left the nonviable fetus at home will not be criminally charged, a grand jury decided Thursday, dismissing a case that highlighted the extent to which women can be prosecuted when their pregnancy ends – whether by abortion or miscarriage.
The felony charge was filed by the Warren Police Department upon advice from the Warren City Prosecutor’s Office, according to a news release from Trumbull County Prosecuting Attorney Dennis Watkins. A municipal court then bound the case over to a Trumbull County grand jury, Watkins said. He noted his office “never assessed the evidence or advised as to charging” Watts.
It was up to the county grand jury to determine whether Watts should be indicted and stand trial, the release said.
Brittany Watts, 34, of Warren, was charged last year with felony abuse of a corpse, Trumbull County court records show. In the days before her September miscarriage, Watts went to a hospital with severe bleeding and was told her fetus was not viable, a coroner’s office report states. The hospital staff notified the Warren Police Department, which responded to Watts’ home, the coroner’s office report says.
On Thursday, that grand jury returned a “no bill” for the charge, concluding insufficient evidence for an indictment against Watts, according to the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s office.
Watkins said his office did not believe Watts violated the law, adding, “We respectfully disagree with the lower court’s application of the law.”
“(This office took) some criticism and vicious personal attacks by the few who didn’t understand that a reasonable amount of time was needed to do our duties and misreported that we were seeking an indictment in this case,” Watkins said.
CNN has reached out to the Warren City Prosecutor’s Office for comment. Assistant prosecutor Lewis Guarnieri said in a November preliminary hearing the issue wasn’t about how or when the child died, it was “the fact that the baby was put into a toilet, large enough to clog up the toilet, left in that toilet and (Watts) went on her day,” according to footage from WKBN.
Watts’ attorney, Traci Timko, told CNN on Thursday the charge was not supported by Ohio law and that Watts was “demonized for something that takes place in the privacy of (women’s) homes regularly.”
“While the last three months have been agonizing, we are incredibly grateful and relieved that Justice was handed down by the grand jury today,” Timko said. “To the countless women who reached out to share their own devastating stories of pregnancy loss- Brittany read every one of them and felt a sisterhood to each of you. The emails, letters, calls, donations and prayers- they all played a part in empowering and getting her through each day.”
After the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade and the federal right to an abortion, a host of state trigger laws went into effect across the country that placed new restrictions or bans on abortion.
In turn, some women carrying fetuses with fatal abnormalities have been barred from having an abortion in their home states. Other women with potentially life-threatening pregnancies have also been unable to get an abortion, as medical exemption clauses can be vague and medical providers fear severe legal consequences.
When asked whether the charge against Watts may have been influenced by the repeal of Roe v. Wade, her attorney previously told CNN ignorance is the main factor.
“I believe that this charge stems from the lack of knowledge and/or insight that men have regarding the realities of miscarriage and women’s health in general,” Timko told CNN previously.
Days of bleeding and a critical timeline
Watts went to a hospital three times in four days due to vaginal bleeding, a report from the Trumbull County Coroner’s Office says.
When she was first admitted to the Labor and Delivery Department at St. Joseph’s Hospital on September 19, “She was diagnosed with premature rupture of membranes and severe oligohydramnios,” the report states. In other words, her water had broken prematurely, and she had exceptionally low – if any – amniotic fluid.
“Although a fetal heartbeat was found, it was recommended by medical staff that an induction occur of the nonviable fetus,” the coroner’s office report states.
At the time, Watts’ pregnancy “was 21 weeks, 5 days gestation,” the report says. In Ohio, abortions are legal until fetal viability – which is generally considered to be around 22 to 24 weeks of pregnancy. After viability, the state can legally restrict abortion access unless the patient’s life or health is at risk.
However, “Brittany Watts signed herself out of the hospital against medical advice on 9/19/2023,” the coroner’s office report states. CNN has previously asked her attorney why Watts left the hospital without having the nonviable fetus induced, as recommended by the medical staff.
The next day, September 20, Watts returned “for the same issue and left against medical advice again,” the coroner’s office report states.
Watts returned on September 20 expecting to be induced to deliver her preterm pregnancy, according to The Washington Post. But for hours doctors and officials mulled the ethics of inducing labor for a woman who had been diagnosed with preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM), had no detectable amniotic fluid, was bleeding vaginally and had advanced cervical dilation, the Post reported. Watts eventually left.
Then on September 22, Watts returned to the hospital “for vaginal bleeding with retained placenta after a home delivery,” the coroner’s office report states. “According to medical records, Brittany Watts stated that at approximately 5:58am … she delivered the fetus into the toilet of her residence.”
Warren police responded to Watts’ home, according to the coroner’s office report.
According to that report, “Brittany stated to police that she had taken the fetus out of the toilet and placed it in a black bucket. She then told police that she put the remains near the garage in the back yard.”
A coroner’s investigator checked inside the bowl of a toilet at the home and “felt what appeared to be a small foot with toes,” the investigator’s report says. The toilet was later broken apart by Warren police detectives, “and the fetus was retrieved,” the report states.
An autopsy revealed the fetus’ cause of death was intrauterine fetal demise – meaning the fetus died inside the womb – due to severely low amniotic fluid from the premature rupture of membranes.
Miscarriage is most common early in the first trimester, often before a woman knows she’s pregnant. It’s less common to naturally lose a fetus more than halfway through gestation – often known as stillbirth. About 21,000 stillbirths happen each year in the US – about 1 in 175 pregnancies, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Physicians express concern over prosecution
Ohio law defines abuse of a corpse in somewhat subjective terms.
“No person, except as authorized by law, shall treat a human corpse in a way that the person knows would outrage reasonable family sensibilities,” the law states. This kind of “abuse of a corpse” would be a second-degree misdemeanor.
In addition, “No person, except as authorized by law, shall treat a human corpse in a way that would outrage reasonable community sensibilities,” the law says. A violation of these terms constitutes “gross abuse of a corpse” – a fifth-degree felony.
However, “(t)here is no law in Ohio that requires a mother suffering a miscarriage to bury or cremate those remains,” Watts’ attorney said.
“Women miscarry into toilets everyday,” Timko previously told CNN in an email. “In fact, the Ohio Legislature has created broad immunity to women for acts or omissions during pregnancy and has admonished that women should ‘in no case’ be criminalized for the circumstances or outcomes of their pregnancies.”
Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights had also slammed the criminal charge against Watts, saying it would deter other women who suffer miscarriages from seeking medical help.
“As citizens, we are outraged that the criminal justice system is being used to punish Ms. Watts who, like thousands of women each year, spontaneously miscarried a non-viable fetus into a toilet and then flushed,” the group said in an open letter to the Trumbull County prosecutor last month.
“By seeking to indict her, you are clearly implying that anyone who miscarries at any point in pregnancy in our state must retrieve the fetal tissue whether they are at home, at work, at school, at a restaurant or other public place and preserve it until the tissue can be disposed of properly even though Ohio law does not define what a proper disposal method would be,” the letter says. “As physicians we are deeply concerned that your actions will deter women who miscarry from obtaining the medical attention they need and deserve.”
CNN’s Christina Maxouris contributed to this report.
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This story has been updated with additional information.