By Alexa Richardson
A woman whose hours-old baby was dying admitted to her care providers that she had abused prescription and over-the-counter medications shortly before the birth. This summer, in United States v. Flute, 929 F.3d 584 (2019), the Eighth Circuit held that she could be charged with federal manslaughter for the death of her baby. While some states have charged pregnant people with manslaughter for drug use during pregnancy, Flute marks the first time that federal prosecutors have brought such charges. The decision, which reversed the district court decision dismissing the charge, opens the door for pregnant people to be criminally charged for a wide range of prenatal conduct — should it result in the baby’s death after birth — such as driving recklessly, receiving chemotherapy treatment during pregnancy, failing to obtain adequate prenatal care, or declining a medical recommendation.
Samantha Flute, an American Indian woman, gave birth at a Sisseton, South Dakota hospital on August 19, 2016. She told the medical staff that she had ingested Lorazepam, hydrocodone (possibly laced with cocaine), and cough syrup before coming to the hospital. Four hours after birth, Baby Boy Flute died. The autopsy revealed a full-term baby with no anatomical cause of death, and the pathologist determined the death to be the result of drug toxicity from the substances ingested prenatally by Flute.