Stop criminalizing pregnant women!

Pregnant-WomanAnti-abortion is not pro-life, not pro-baby and above all not pro-woman! Another case in point is a law in Tennessee, set to go into effect July 1 that criminalizes drug use during pregnancy.

While it is common sense that substance abuse during pregnancy is not a good idea, criminalization of drug use by pregnant women creates more problems than it solves.

The biggest problem? Pregnant women who are using drugs are likely to avoid prenatal care, for fear of being arrested or having their baby taken away after birth. Avoiding prenatal care is not good for the mother or the developing fetus. Nor does it bode well for the likelihood that a pregnant woman who is addicted to drugs will seek treatment, another desirable outcome.

While Tennessee is the first state to criminalize drug use during pregnancy, many other states use drug use during pregnancy as a reason to take children away from poor parents.

What we have here is a confluence of anti-abortion policies with the War on Drugs. Criminalizing drug use by pregnant women (even prescribed drugs) is part of the incremental strategy of the anti-abortion movement to chip away at Roe v. Wade, by focusing on the “rights” of the fetus.

At the same time, the law is part of a society-wide tendency to treat the problem of drug abuse as a crime that needs to be punished, instead of a disease that needs to be treated. As such, these laws and policies disproportionately target poor women and women of color—not because poor women and women of color use more drugs than well-to-do and white women, but because of systematic racism in the criminal justice system and the disproportionate attention paid to poor families by child protective services.

Researching this topic, I came across the website of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women which contains a veritable trove of information on this topic and other topics relating to the rights of pregnant women. This organization was part of a coalition that fought to stop the passage of Tennessee’s law; they plan to continue fighting.

There are many popular misconceptions about the effects of drug use during pregnancy. I am old enough to remember when people worried about so-called Crack Babies, babies born to women who were using crack cocaine. Now that these babies have matured, research shows that prenatal exposure to crack did not end up causing the significant health and cognitive problems that had been predicted.

What is the biggest threat to the health of babies and children? Poverty. Instead of terrorizing pregnant women with the threat of jail or having their children taken away, we need access to quality health care including prenatal care and family friendly drug treatment, where women can keep their children with them as they recover from addiction.

We can’t just wait and hope that humane, pro-woman, pro-baby policies will be implemented. We have to get out and fight for them, because for today, the anti-choice right-wing nut jobs have the momentum in many states and are slowly but surely effacing a woman’s right to choose.

And it’s not enough to defend Roe v. Wade—we need to defend the right of women not only to prevent and terminate unwanted pregnancies, but also to be able to choose to start families and be able to raise those children with decent lives. This means living wage jobs, decent housing, affordable quality childcare and access to healthcare for us and our children.

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