Experts Dispute Risks of Using Stun Guns On Pregnant Women

Heather Hollingsworth
Associated Press

January 30, 2007

Tianesha Robinson was about four months pregnant last fall when she was jolted with a Taser stun gun while resisting arrest during a traffic stop.

After experiencing cramps for several weeks, the 33-year-old Wichita, Kan., woman miscarried. Her family insists there is a connection between the miscarriage and the roughly 50,000-volt shock that subdued her, though doctors said the link would be more clear had she miscarried immediately after the shock.

That kind of uncertainty is fueling debate over the safety of the devices.

Taser International of Scottsdale, Ariz., has said its products are safe law enforcement tools, but did not return several calls for comment on this story.

The human rights group Amnesty International has identified more than 230 people who have died after being stunned since June 2001. The group is particularly concerned about the use of Tasers on vulnerable people, such as those who are pregnant, sick or very young or old.

Dalia Hashad, director of Amnesty's USA Program, said it can be difficult to tell whether someone is a member of one of those vulnerable groups.

"People with heart problems aren't always identifiable by appearance and people who are pregnant are not always identifiable until the later half of their pregnancy, sometimes not until the last trimester," Hashad said.

She said the group wasn't aware of anyone who tracked the number of pregnant women who have been shocked with Tasers, but other women besides Robinson have reported suffering miscarriages after sustaining shocks.

One woman, Cindy Grippi, settled a lawsuit with the city of Chula Vista, Calif., for $675,000. She delivered a stillborn girl in December 2001 after police used a Taser on her when she refused to halt. A medical examiner was unable to determine a cause of death and suggested Grippi's methamphetamine use could be to blame.

"There is one thing we know," said Fabrice Czarnecki, an emergency physician and staff doctor for the Police Policy Studies Council, a law enforcement research training and consulting group. "If you are hit by a Taser you are likely to fall. We know even minor trauma during pregnancy, like a fall, is dangerous and could be fatal to the fetus. Again, we don't know whether the risk is 1 percent or 5 percent. We don't know. But we know it's there."

Taser itself warns on its Web site that people who are infirm or pregnant may be at higher risk of secondary injuries, such as those due to falls.

"As far as the electricity on the fetus, I think it may be dangerous," Czarnecki added, noting there's an absence of peer-reviewed research on the subject.

Czarnecki said Taser has conducted one unpublished animal study that found the Taser did not induce miscarriage in two pregnant pigs. But Czarnecki also noted a 1992 case report regarding a woman who was shocked with a predecessor of the modern-day Taser when she was 12 weeks pregnant. She began to miscarry seven days later.

The author, Lewis E. Mehl, concluded that the devices could deliver electrical injuries capable of harming a fetus.

"Ethical questions should be raised about the criteria for the use of the Taser on women of childbearing age," wrote Mehl, now an associate professor of family medicine and psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine in Canada.

In the case of Robinson, there is some dispute about how pregnant she appeared. The Sedgwick County deputy has told supervisors he was unaware that she was pregnant when he shocked her. But her aunt, Betty Arnold, said her niece was obviously showing.

Robinson was jolted Sept. 29 after she wriggled free of handcuffs and fled police during a traffic stop. The deputy chased her down and deployed the taser, but the probes missed. He later pushed the barrel of the stun gun once against the side of her abdomen and once against her back, Sedgwick County Undersheriff Bob Hinshaw said.

Using a Taser that way, known as a "drive stun," causes isolated pain, but not the total incapacitation that would have occurred if the probes had hit her, Hinshaw said.

Robinson was taken into custody and held at the county jail. There, she miscarried Oct. 25 after going into labor.

Six days later, she was convicted of escaping from custody during a July altercation and driving with a suspended license in March 2003. She was sentenced to time already served.

Because Robinson did not miscarry immediately, Arnold said attorneys showed little interest in her case.

"Until someone stands up and holds police departments and manufacturers of this instrument more accountable, I think there are going to be a lot of babies that suffer," Arnold said.

Hinshaw said the department conducted a review and determined the arresting deputy did not violate departmental policies when he used the Taser on Robinson. The jail also conducted a review and determined the care Robinson received was appropriate.

"Regardless of how it got to that point, you're still talking about the miscarriage of a baby," he said. "That's a tragedy, especially for the expectant mother."

He said the incident was not considered a lethal-force situation.

"But ask yourself, if it's a lethal force situation, what's the better situation - a Taser or a firearm?

"It really boils down to the actions of the suspect and the unique factors going on at the time."