Pregnant on death row

A Vietnamese inmate gets pregnant while in solitary confinement. Will she still die by firing squad, or will her pregnancy save her life?


Adrienne So
October 14, 2006 3:00AM (UTC)

Here's a stand-out headline for an interesting case: "Death-row prisoner gets pregnant in solitary." Yup, you read that right: Reuters reported this week that a Vietnamese death-row inmate, held in solitary confinement for almost a year, has been found to be 11 weeks pregnant. Convicted heroin trafficker Nguyen Thi Oanh is now seeking a pardon from her death sentence by firing squad. (Reuters notes that in Vietnam, trafficking more than 600 grams of heroin is punishable by death or with a life sentence; Oanh was in possession of a billion dong, or $63,000, worth of the drug.)

Most immediately, authorities are dealing with the mystery of how she became pregnant, since her husband is serving jail time in another province. Two guards have been detained in a police investigation, for allegedly "abusing their power" by allowing another inmate to stay in Oanh's cell.

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Another question, however, may throw pro-choice activists: What happens to Oanh's sentence? It is against Vietnamese law to carry out a death sentence on a pregnant woman or women with a child under the age of three, so her pregnancy may save her life. That's good news for Oanh, but it raises some tricky questions: What is the justification for pardoning a pregnant woman on death row? If Oanh is pardoned solely because she is pregnant, is the Vietnamese court system protecting the right of an 11-week-old fetus to live?

In the United States, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act recognizes crimes against a pregnant mother to be crimes against her child. We've stopped short, however, of extending acts of justice against the mother to her fetus. The U.S. hasn't faced a case like Oanh's, perhaps because only a small percentage of inmates on death row are women. But some states have provisions in place for pregnant inmates: South Dakota makes exceptions in administering the death penalty to pregnant women, delaying an execution past the prescribed 90 days if an inmate is pregnant or deemed mentally unfit.

I'm against all executions, so my vote goes against the death penalty in Oanh's case -- but not on the basis of her pregnancy. After all, surely some of the men who receive the death penalty have recently fathered children. Is it right for women -- even criminal women -- to be spared on the basis that they happen to be the gender lucky enough to get the womb? I'm torn. Faithful readers, weigh in.


Adrienne So

Adrienne So is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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