Friday, February 1, 2013

Pregnant Women Under Siege?

A new article in the Journal of Health Law, Policy, and Politics indicates that arrests and forced interventions on pregnant women occur far more frequently than was previously thought, and provides new insight into these women’s experiences. Collecting data from a variety of sources, researchers concluded that between 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, and 2005, over 400 women in the United States were arrested and/or institutionalized for reasons relating to their pregnancy. This research comes at a time when many states are contemplating so-called personhood amendments, which expand the legal definition of ‘person’ to include human beings at all stages of development, in some cases including fertilization - before a pregnancy even begins.. Many critics argue these laws would provide legal grounds for increased interventions, as well as investigation and prosecution in cases of miscarriage or stillbirth.

The majority of the women were detained because they were suspected of having used illegal drugs; in one extreme case a woman was arrested for mere living in a home that at one point had previously been used to manufacture methamphetamine. Other reasons for arrest included failure to obtain prenatal care, mental illness, gestational diabetes, and miscarriage or stillbirth. Arrest and forcible intervention are disproportionately used against low-income women and women of color. Authors Paltrow and Flavin, Executive Director and Board President of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, respectively  offer several vivid examples. One woman who was coerced into confessing to birthing and then murdering her child, when scientific evidence in fact showed she had miscarried to be being improperly given a Depo-Provera shot while pregnant. Another was arrested and charged with felony murder after her pregnancy ended in a stillbirth, based on the fact that she used cocaine while pregnant. She served eight years of a twelve year sentence before her conviction was overturned on appeal.

In many states, a single health facility is responsible for the majority of cases. In South Carolina, Paltrown and Flavin traced thirty of thirty-one cases back to the Medical Center of the University of South Carolina. In Talbot County, Maryland, social workers, police, and the state attorney’s office worked together to identify and arrest new mothers who tested positive for illegal drugs. This practice continued until 2006, when an appeals court ruled that Maryland’s fetal endangerment statue was not intended to cover the use of drugs while pregnant.

The study isn’t definitive but the limitations suggest that if anything, Paltrow and Flavin still underestimate the extent of this phenomenon. The authors were limited to documenting cases that generated some sort of public record, like a court decision or media attention, but the evidence suggests additional cases do exist. As certain states continue to push for additional restrictions on the right to choose, this is an issue that deserves continued attention.

Read more:
Md. Endangerment Law Challenged by Rona Marech. The Baltimore Sun. 8 Apr. 2006.
Charges Rejected for Moms Who Bear Babies Exposed to Illegal Drugs by Susan Kinzie. The Washington Post. 4 Aug. 2006.
New Study Shows Anti-Choice Policies Leading to Widespread Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women by Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Falvin. RH Reality Check. 14 Jan. 2013.