Deodonne Bhattarai, Resident Blogger (’12, Northeastern University School of Law)
The “Birthing Justice” panel at the recent Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference at Hampshire College celebrated Massachusetts’ recent success in passing an anti-shackling bill. It also highlighted the dangers inherent in treating pregnant people differently from non-pregnant people. These two issues, at first seemingly at odds with each other, point to an important lesson for those pursuing the protection of pregnant people forced to give birth while in state or federal custody – as important as anti-shacking laws are, it is crucial that they be drafted using language that empowers the pregnant woman rather than in a way that protects the unborn fetus.
Fetal separateness laws ultimately convey legal rights upon the fetus, often from the moment of conception. As Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director and founder of National Advocates for Pregnant Women has explained, there is no way to grant rights to an egg, embryo, or fetus without diminishing the rights of the pregnant person. Over the last three decades, hundreds of women have been charged with crimes due to pregnancy related conduct and we have seen the application of existing criminal and civil child protection laws upon pregnant women in unprecedented ways.
For example, pregnant women who test positive for drugs have been charged with assault with a deadly weapon – the deadly weapon in these cases is the drug and the assault is the in-utero transmission of that drug from the woman to her fetus. Pregnant women have also been charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, unlawful child neglect, and child endangerment. Even women participating in government sponsored methadone programs have had their newborns taken away due to in-utero “abuse” when the baby tested positive for the drug. Certain conduct including attempted suicide as well as being HIV positive, has subjected pregnant women to charges of murder, feticide, and sentencing enhancement triggers. Late last month, Tennessee passed the nation’s furthest reaching law, a law that subjects any woman struggling with drug addiction to criminal prosecution based upon her pregnancy outcome.
The creative application of laws upon pregnant people is not only destructive to maintaining family unity but is also counterproductive in assisting with any mental health issues or drug addictions the pregnant person might have. As Paltrow explained in a recent interview with NPR, “The biggest threats to life, born and unborn, do not come from mothers. They come from poverty, barriers to health care, persistent racism, environmental hazards and prosecutions like these that will frighten women away from getting help from the problems they do have.”
The shackling of pregnant, laboring, and post-natal inmates has been outlawed in eighteen states. When asked about Massachusetts’ pending legislation, Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts stated, “Shackling pregnant women is unsafe and inhumane, and it is shocking that this barbaric practice continues today.” As prisoners rights advocates understand, shackling any human, pregnant or not, is inhumane and barbaric but while we wait for greater criminal justice reforms, we must remain vigilant. As anti-shacking legislation continues to gain momentum, it is incumbent upon reproductive justice advocates to ensure that such laws are constructed carefully so as to protect women’s rights while avoiding language that would strengthen fetal separateness jurisprudence. For not only do fetal rights laws potentially curtail abortion rights by establishing dangerous precedent but they also create a maternal-fetal conflict by pitting the woman’s autonomy, right to privacy, and right to bodily integrity against those of her fetus.