Why Criminalization of Birth Outcomes is Insane

Angry.  That's how I felt when I read about the new legislation in Tennessee, which will now allow pregnant women to be prosecuted for assault if they take narcotics during pregnancy and the fetus is harmed.

As a childbirth educator, of course I am keenly interested in helping to create positive pregnancy outcomes - i.e. healthy babies! - but I am most certainly NOT in favor of making criminals out of women whose choices negatively impact their pregnancies.

It's so much more complicated than that... 

Let's start with trying to follow the lawmakers' own logic:  Whether or not Tennessee legislators agree with it - abortion is legal in all 50 states.  

However, they've decided that a woman addicted to illegal drugs can be charged with assault of her unborn child.

If you want to carry your pregnancy to term, and you need medical intervention to do so without abusing drugs, you're considered a criminal.  But terminating your pregnancy is perfectly legal.

To recap: Abortion, yes. Prenatal drug use? Abusive to fetuses. (Never mind the mother...)

Can't criminalize one without the other.  (And if you think I'm about to segue into a pro-life campaign here, you're sorely mistaken.)

I don't care what your personal stance on abortion is...this makes no sense.

This law is full of ridiculous assumptions that harm both babies and mothers.

First, let's get clear on one thing.  Regardless of what any law states, experts agree that narcotic abuse is primarily a chronic disease, NOT a criminal act.

If seeking legitimate medical help becomes potentially self-incriminating, it effectively prevents pregnant women from seeking that medical help because of fear of legal repercussions.

This is yet another of the many ways in which pregnant women are not treated as fully human. 

Instead, we are reduced in a thousand little ways to mere vessels of conception, assembly line machines without a valid consciousness or identity.

I personally believe that life begins at conception, and that the spark of consciousness is present before a child is born. However, to say that the rights of the unborn invalidate or reduce the rights of the woman carrying it is tantamount to reducing women to mere holding tanks for the creation of "real humans".

Kathi Valeii of Birth Anarchy sums this up quite nicely:

"Pregnant women are not a sub-class of people, to be handled, scrutinized and discarded at the medical community's whim. Pregnant women are PEOPLE. We are not vessels; we are not chattel; we are more than baby-pumping machines. I do not lose my fundamental human rights when I don the status, 'pregnant'."

Pregnancy does not and  should not change the status of a woman's legal or natural rights.

What's going to be next?  Non-consensual drug screenings throughout pregnancy?  Oh, right, that's already happening in some places.

 Another truth that the lawmakers do not seem to be aware of is this:

The majority of narcotics being abused are actually legal pharmaceuticals, and not illegal street drugs.

- yet -

The current drug laws make no delineation between the two.

So a pregnant woman taking something her doctor actually prescribed could even be condemned under this new law - even (especially?) if she seeks help specifically for her addiction.

Many pharmaceuticals are known to be very addictive - and yet, they're over-prescribed, given to pregnant women despite our government not having conducted adequate research on the long-term risks and consequences.

In Tennessee especially, there's a major shortage of treatment options for drug-addicted mothers, especially those who already have children that need to be cared for, or who live in poverty.

Even worse, there aren't enough treatment centers that specialize in pregnancy addiction problems.

Research has shown that cold-turkey detoxing from any substance is not recommended during pregnancy, since the toxins will be offloaded into the fetus even more strongly, thereby increasing the risks to the unborn child.

Further, many drug laws are lumping in cannabis with chemical concoctions like meth and heroin.

This is despite the fact that marijuana has been widely acclaimed for its healing benefits, and is not addictive compared to alcohol. It's been championed as a life-saver for pregnant women with hyperemesis gravidarium.

It's unwise to include drug abuse as a criminal offense, along with things like murder, rape, and theft.

Given what we understand scientifically about addiction, it just doesn't make sense.

Committing suicide is a crime too, but nobody's putting people who make suicide attempts behind bars to punish them - there's counseling or treatment programs for that!

Which leads us into yet another assumption:

The heinous idea that an impartial government body cares more for an unborn child than its own mother:

Laws about fetal harm are supposed to protect women, yet too often, they end up being used against mothers themselves, even up to and including termination of parental rights.

In my opinion a situation would need to be extremely dire to justify separating a newborn baby from its mother permanently, if not for only a few hours!  The time immediately postpartum is an incredibly crucial, vulnerable, and sensitive period of time for emotional bonding, mental health, and more - for both mothers and babies.

Even addicts are still human.  Surely we can do better than this,

Jailing mothers does not help them overcome addiction.  It certainly is going to be traumatic for both mother and child to be separated.

This will likely compound and aggravate the mother's problems, adding things like PSTD and neonatal trauma to her list of complications that she cannot afford proper treatment of.

Maybe providing support and continuity of care for the mother-baby unit would be better, kinder, more sensible protection?

If we as a culture start to accept and encourage the idea that our government is the true benevolent force in people's lives, and that we should further enable the government's right to step in and protect day-old babies from the apathetic perils of being left to their own clueless parents....

Well, we have much bigger problems as a culture if we think that's legitimate.

Yeah, I hear the cynics out there.  I get it.

It's easier to say, "Bad mom! No baby." and strip both baby and mother of their legal and natural rights.

Less complicated for those in charge, better for the common good, etc. People seem to like punishment of others, unfortunately.

I think it's bullshit.  Call me optimistic all you like, but I believe humanity deserves more compassion than that.

While a fetus does not have legal human rights (Roe v. Wade exists - like it or not), a newborn child AND their mother do.  One of the most utterly profound and intractable of these should be the right to remain with its birth mother if at all possible.

To assume that a mother cares less for her own child than an impartial government body does

- and to act in accordance with that assumption -

is deplorable at best, and demonstrates an extreme lack of faith in humanity.

I choose to believe in individual women and mothers, instead of  some misguided definition of mass justice.

I think it's crucial that we women stand together and condemn any law that relegates us to little more than breeding stock.