Note: I wrote the following post in January 2013 but in light of Tennesse's decision to subject pregnant women to criminal charges should they use drugs when pregnant, it felt worth a re-visit. I've updated and amended the original.
Pregnancy used to be "just" a spectator sport in this country. We are fascinated by and fixated on pregnant women. We scan magazine spreads for famous actresses’ bumps and speculate "boy or girl?" Strangers ask us what we’re having, as if somehow connected to the reproductive process. People we meet for the first time reach out to touch our private body with a gesture that has–through this public feeding frenzy that is a woman’s pregnancy–somehow become permissible. (Ask yourself at what other time it is considered "okay" for someone to reach out and touch your stomach!) It’s a strange world we live in. But what has been formerly just annoying has recently taken on an even more dangerous tone with the criminalization of women's bodies should they do something "problematic" when pregnant. And that's a problem.
Parallel to this very public watch of pregnancy has grown an equally intrusive and even more concerning focus on the fetus. Yes, the fetus. Not yet a child and already we are seeing a preoccupation with its rights over those of the pregnant woman. Earlier this week, Tennessee became the first state in the country to move toward pressing criminal charges against a pregnant woman if she uses drugs. And there are so many more examples including:
- a pregnant woman in Texas was slapped with a “DUI-Child Endangerment” when her BA level was less than the half the legal limit;
- Ditto for another woman in Memphis who also received a DUI;
- An Iowa woman who fell down the stairs and was charged with "attempted feticide" after she reported the accident;
- And in Mississippi a 16 year old girl whose baby was stillborn may receive life in prison when it was discovered that she used cocaine during her pregnancy.
Perhaps many of us also remember the case of Bei-Bei Shuai, who out of desperation, wondering how she would survive after her partner left her, attempted suicide. Shuai, pregnant at the time, was charged with attempted feticide and murder in spite of her insistence that she had no desire to hurt the baby. I think it’s worth nothing that in many recent cases, the women in question are women of color. An article published in Mother Jones published just last year found similar examples with the majority of the cases involving women of color and lower income women.
The problem with policing (masquerading as “protecting”) of the fetus is two-fold:
- Women are told in no uncertain terms that they aren't as important as their baby. That's scary. In my mind being charged with a crime related to fetus endangerment reminds me of A Handmaid’s Tale, the fictitious novel by Margaret Atwood where certain women are important only as vessels for new life, with no real rights of their own and completely disposable should they not get pregnant.
- Women of color and poor women are more likely be discriminated against than white women. They are more likely to be arrested and more likely for that DUI arrest, for example, to not be covered by media as the outrage that it is. As a white middle class woman, if I were charged with a DUI for child endangerment when I was pregnant, I would hire a lawyer to fight it. I have the time and resources to do so. Many do not.
No one is saying that it's not a problem for a pregnant woman to do drugs. But as usual, our society looks to condemn first and ask questions later. The questions in these case should be related to circumstance and support. If you're a pregnant 16 year old doing cocaine, pregnancy is likely only the most recent of many challenges you've had in your short life. Think domestic violence, sexual assault, poverty, a lack of education and good healthcare, high stress, etc...all in a state like Mississippi which ranks 51st in the country on women's health issues. (North Carolina, by comparison ranks 36th.)
Unchecked, this policing of women’s bodies will continue. What this means is that those of us who do have greater privilege must speak out, loudly and often. The surveillance will extend beyond women of color and lower income women to others like me (and perhaps you) as well. We are all in this together. We need to speak up on behalf of others not because we might be targeted next but (although we might) but because it’s the right thing to do.