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Women Are Second-Class Citizens When Pregnancy Makes Us Potential Criminals

July 16, 2014 in Blogs

By Jessica Valenti, The Guardian

A world in which all women of child-bearing age are considered 'pre-pregnant' is the stuff of nightmares.

Late in my pregnancy with my daughter, Layla, I had a glass of red wine every once in a while. And while I took prenatal vitamins, I'm sure I missed a day somewhere in there. I definitely—absolutely, without-a-doubt—ate more junk food than is recommended by most health organizations. Does that mean I should go to jail? It may sound ridiculous, but that's the very real slippery slope we're on, thanks to laws criminalizing pregnant women—and treating their personhood as secondary to their pregnancy.

Earlier this month in Tennessee, 26-year-old new mother Mallory Loyola became the first person arrested under a new law that makes using narcotics while pregnant a criminal offense. Loyola is facing charges of assault against her fetus—she was arrested two days following birth, after she allegedly tested positive for amphetamines.

While Tennessee is the only U.S. state with an explicit law criminalizing drug use by pregnant women, Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, says that multiple states arrest pregnant women anyway, simply by classifying fetuses as children.

Alabama, for example, has arrested over 100 pregnant women since 2006 under a law meant to stop people from bringing children to place where drugs are made, like meth labs. And earlier this year, that state's supreme court ruled that women can be charged with “chemical endangerment” of a child if they use a controlled substance while pregnant. The definition of pregnancy is so broad, Paltrow says, that a woman could smoke some pot with her boyfriend one night, have sex, get pregnant and, under Alabama law, face 10 years in jail for that one use of marijuana.

Obviously, doing drugs while pregnant is a horrible idea. But criminalizing addicted pregnant women who need treatment is bad for babies and their mothers. It's a short-term, punitive measure with no positive lasting impact to simply ensure that pregnant women who need drug treatment and pre-natal care won't seek either of those options, for fear of having their children taken away from them.

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