Sunday, September 12, 2010

Discrimination against pregnant women

Even in elementary school, I was very aware of the discrimination that stopped women from preventing or ending their pregnancies. The abortion battles, the refusal to subsidize contraception or provide adequate sex education- these were (and are) all popular news topics. However, it was not until very recently that I became aware of the extent of the discrimination that faces women once they become pregnant.

Of course, I had heard bits and pieces, here and there. I knew that in the past women were fired for becoming pregnant and forced to sign contracts agreeing not to become pregnant in order to obtain loans. I knew that our society failed to provide poor, mostly non-white women with the resources to care for their fetuses and then stigmatized them when their babies were born with health problems.

However, I did not realize that pregnant women were actually thrown into jail because they struggled with addiction, refused cesareans, or simply didn’t get enough bed rest. I did not realize that pregnant women were forcibly dragged to the hospital, strapped down, and cut open.

Even if these measures genuinely improved maternal and fetal health, they would be appalling. The irony, however, is that these assaults on women's bodily integrity often do little to improve maternal and fetal health. Frequently, they worsen it.

While drug use is certainly not recommended during pregnancy, the negative effects are generally much less significant and much less certain than courts assume.

The infamous crack baby epidemic is a case in point. During the height of the crack baby hysteria, one judge compared smoking crack during pregnancy to "tak[ing] a pistol and put[ting] it in your mouth and blow[ing] your head off." (Which leads me to wonder- does he think pregnant women who attempt suicide should be thrown in jail, too?)

However, a New York Times article "The Epidemic That Wasn't" reveals that maternal crack cocaine use is comparable to maternal tobacco use, and quotes a federal maternal cocaine use researcher as saying “Are there differences [between cocaine-exposed babies and other babies]? Yes. Are they reliable and persistent? Yes. Are they big? No.”

Forcing women to have cesareans or hospital births or jailing women for refusing to do so is even more ridiculous, given that the rise in c-sections appears to have contributed to the recent rise in maternal mortality in the U.S.

Throwing pregnant women in prison for allegedly failing to care for their babies betrays not only a lack of respect for their bodily integrity and a failure to pay attention to the medical literature, but a profound lack of common sense.

Care for pregnant prisoners is frequently atrocious. Women are often denied care even when they show visible signs of distress, such as leaking amniotic fluid or bleeding from the vagina for days after being repeatedly punched in the stomach by fellow prisoners. Women who make it to labor sometimes end up giving birth in their cells because guards refuse to take them to the hospital until too late. Although activist groups have recently succeeded in reducing the shackling of non-violent women prisoners in the hospital as they give birth, shackles are still routinely used as guards transport women to and from the hospital in labor.

The punishment of pregnant women for allegedly not caring for their babies involves not just sexist ideas about women’s right to bodily integrity, but also sexist (and classist and racist) ideas about intelligence. The probably white, probably male, almost certainly upper class doctors and judges are assumed to be correct about what is healthiest for the mother and baby. The frequently non-white, frequently poor, always female mother is assumed to be wrong. (Of course, if it turns out the doctors and judges are wrong, the blame is quickly shifted to the women- see Miriam PĂ©rez’s excellent article on so-called “voluntary” c-sections.)

I’ve always loved Marilyn Frye's birdcage metaphor and it’s very relevant in the context of reproductive rights. Fry explains that if you look at a single wire of a bird cage you cannot understand why the bird cannot just fly around it. It’s only when you step back and look at all the wires together that you see how they effectively trap the bird.

Restrictions on birth control and abortion must be understood in combination with discrimination, and both of them must also be understood in combination with rape, homophobia, pressure to have children, and problematic adoption practices. On their own, these things are painful enough, but together they combine to form a situation in which it’s difficult for women to avoid pregnancy and even more difficult for them to maintain their bodily integrity once they are pregnant.


MRVanegas said...

Kate, you are so right. Our justice system is broken, and it is even more broken in the war on drugs. That failing policy has far-reaching arms, and evidently, it hits pregnant drug addicts with a double whammy.

If the same amount of money that we spend on jailing these women, and forcing them to have c-sections would be spent on their prenatal care and drug-addiction therapy, we would be much more ahead.

Rebecca said...

Regarding the Practices Endangering Incarcerated Pregnant Women.....

California has the third largest population of incarcerated women in the country. Tens of thousands of women go through county jails every year and an average of 4 to 7 percent are pregnant at some point in their custody.

Prior to legislation passed into law in 2004, pregnant inmates were shackled during labor. This practice seriously endangered the mother and the child. The California Women’s Legislative Caucus was instrumental in beginning to address CDCR’s policies with regard to pregnant inmates.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed AB 1900.

This bill takes a further step in limiting the use of restraints on pregnant women while they are being transferred to a hospital unless there is a clear case of security or flight risk.

To see the text of the bill, go to:

gtg263r said...

Thank you for this insightful post. I think the subject matter is very thought-provoking, though one that I have never thought about before.

I think I agree with the author's general points and tenor, but the post still leaves me with questions regarding the solution to this discrimination against pregnant women.

I think MRVanegas' suggestion of drug-addiction therapy is a sensible alternative to imprisonment, but how will this translate into the real world? In other words, there are a number of issues that I think we need to think about.

At what point in a pregnancy do authorities (medical or legal) generally discover a woman's substance abuse problem?

If a woman is well into her pregnancy and we assume that she has been abusing substances for the whole term, should we not be concerned for the healthiness of the baby? Is imprisonment justified? How long does drug-addiction therapy normally take? How can we ensure that the desired goals will be achieved in time?

I don't have the answer to any of these questions, but they are what I thought of as I read this blog post.