If you’re wondering why Republicans have been unable to work with Democrats to arrive at a political deal to prevent the American government from going into default, it might be because they’re too busy criminalizing 15-year-old girls for having miscarriages.
You read that correctly. Rennie Gibbs currently faces life in prison in Mississippi over a miscarriage she endured in 2006 when she was 15 years old, and she is not the first to face attempted criminalization of this kind (though she is the first to be charged in Mississippi). Prosecutors are allegedly targeting Gibbs because she has reportedly abused cocaine, but there is no evidence that her drug use contributed to the miscarriage.
Unfortunately, her case is by no means isolated, and in fact marks the continuation of a nationwide trend towards criminalization of pregnant women. Increasingly in the United States and around the world, laws are being created and prosecutions are being brought that would make pregnant women into criminals, many of these women of color like Rennie Gibbs.
Often created by conservative lawmakers, these laws attempt to assign fetuses “personhood” status, devalue pregnant women by reducing their identities to fetus carriers, and punish women for engaging in various behaviors.
Despite their dramatic posturing and elaborate rationalizations, the people driving these prosecutions are not actually concerned with keeping mothers or babies safe. If they were, they wouldn’t ignore the consensus of doctors and leading medical organizations, who have publicly opposed laws like these for years on the grounds that they scare women away from seeking the medical treatment they need and sometimes force doctors to turn in their own patients.
These seeming attempts to promote women’s and children’s health are actually thinly veiled attempts to chip away at abortion rights in this country by reinforcing the idea that unborn fetuses have “rights” and women’s legal identity should be akin to that of a fetus-carrying vessel.
Pregnant women need health care, not jail time. No matter your opinion about abortion, you can probably agree that sending young teenagers to jail for life because they weren’t able to successfully carry a pregnancy to term is a gross distortion of American justice and a terrible idea on its face.
While these laws may be crafted with a strategic intent, the implications are quite practical. Gibbs is really facing the prospect of life in prison. Already a mother, she now awaits a ruling on her appeal. “They say I’m a criminal, how do I answer that? I’m a good mother,” she said in a recent interview.
Surely the irony of threatening to leave three real-life children motherless by putting a young woman behind bars for allegedly endangering an unborn fetus does not escape you.
Further, a pregnant woman’s health, behavior and choices should not make her a criminal on the reasoning that these factors might potentially hurt the fetus. From there, it’s a slippery slope. As Miriam Perez, a writer and doula (someone who assists the process of labor and childbirth) writes, “There is a lot of evidence to say that criminalizing something doesn’t actually eliminate it — and usually results in making the thing itself more dangerous.”
The ACLU points out that “virtually everything a pregnant woman does or does not do could land her in jail, because virtually everything a pregnant woman does or does not do — from what she eats, to where she works, to what condition her health was in before she became pregnant — has an effect on her fetus. Allowing the government to exercise such unlimited control over women’s bodies, and every aspect of their lives, would essentially reduce pregnant women to second-class citizens, denying them the basic constitutional rights enjoyed by the rest of us.”
The ACLU has also launched a campaign to draw attention to some of the absurd consequences of these laws. For example, in the past five years alone, Alabama has prosecuted at least 40 women for the crime of being a meth lab. Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, Staff Attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, explains. “These women have all been convicted under a 2006 law that makes it a crime to allow children into houses where meth labs are operated. But…none of these crimes involved anyone other than the woman herself. With the state of Alabama alleging that their bodies were the equivalent of a meth lab, these women have been sent to jail for no other crime than that they couldn’t beat their addictions while they were pregnant.”
Last month marked the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs”. Recent calculations suggest that this “war” has cost roughly a trillion dollars, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States, and has contributed to making America the world’s largest incarcerator.
Black people have often been the principal focus of drug law enforcement, with disastrous consequences for our community: we account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population, but 39.4 percent of the total prison and jail population in 2009. We must not let pregnant women fall prey to the same discriminatory policies, and become yet another group of victims in the latest round of laws to dominate and control the bodies of people of color.