[Pnews] Pregnant People of Color are Bearing the Brunt of the War on Drugs

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 14 11:35:30 EST 2021


https://progressive.org/dispatches/pregnant-people-of-color-war-on-drugs-bader-210113/
Pregnant
People of Color are Bearing the Brunt of the War on Drugs
Eleanor J. Bader - January 13, 2021
------------------------------

When Chelsea Becker was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, she delivered a
stillborn baby. An autopsy found high levels of methamphetamine in its
system, and Becker, then twenty-five, was subsequently charged
<https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-11-08/woman-charged-with-murder-after-delivering-stillborn-baby>
with first-degree murder. Bail was initially set at $5 million, then
lowered to an equally out-of-reach $2 million. As a result, Becker has been
in pre-trial detention at the King County Jail in Hanford, California,
since November 2019.

“Prosecuting someone like Chelsea Becker doesn’t bring her fetus back or
help her grieve her loss. Unfortunately, miscarriages and stillbirths are
not uncommon; quite simply, ‘fetal protection’ laws are terrible public
policy.”

Becker is not an anomaly. In fact, over the past five decades, hundreds of
people—71 percent of them low-income, and 59 percent people of color—have
been locked up
<https://read.dukeupress.edu/jhppl/article/38/2/299/13533/Arrests-of-and-Forced-Interventions-on-Pregnant>,
sometimes in mental hospitals and sometimes in prison or mandatory
treatment programs, for drug or alcohol use during pregnancy.

According to Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National
Advocates for Pregnant Women <http://ationaladvocatesforpregnantwomen.org/>,
a peer-reviewed study
<https://read.dukeupress.edu/jhppl/article/38/2/299/13533/Arrests-of-and-Forced-Interventions-on-Pregnant>
documented 413 arrests between 1973 and 2005.

“We know this is an undercount,” Paltrow tells *The Progressive*. “We are
currently updating the survey, but we already know that law enforcement has
ramped up since 2005. From that year to today, there have been at least 800
arrests, twice as many in half as much time as we found in our earlier
research.”

Paltrow says this uptick reflects a prosecutorial shift. “In the 1970s,
1980s, and early 1990s, law enforcement tended to focus on pregnancies
after quickening—the detection of fetal movement—but there is now talk
about controlling, detaining, and arresting pregnant people from the moment
of conception,” she says. This is due, at least in part, to the 1992
Supreme Court decision in *Planned Parenthood v. Casey
<https://www.oyez.org/cases/1991/91-744>*, which emphasized the state’s
interest in protecting fetal life. The decision further allowed
<http://washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/29.problems-with-relying-precedent-protect-abortion-rights>
states to restrict abortion as long as the qualifiers did not cause an
ill-defined “undue burden” on either the provider or patient.

The upshot has been the enactment of a slew of “fetal protection” laws
throughout the country. *Vox* reports
<http://vox.com/identities/2019/4/18/20954980/stillbirth-miscarriage-murder-abortion-chelsea-becker-news>
that, as of August 2020, thirty-seven states had passed statutes that have
been used to criminalize pregnant people who use drugs or alcohol or engage
in behaviors that put the health of a fetus “in danger.”

Alabama’s Chemical Endangerment of a Child law
<https://definitions.uslegal.com/c/chemical-endangerment-of-child/#:~:text=Chemical%20Endangerment%20of%20Child%20Law%20and%20Legal%20Definition,when%20the%20child%20is%20in%20the%20mother%E2%80%99s%20womb>
is one example. The ordinance makes it a felony to “knowingly, recklessly,
or intentionally cause or permit a child to be exposed to, or ingest, or
inhale, or have contact with a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia,”
including glass pipes and bongs.

What’s more, eighteen states regard drug use during pregnancy as child
abuse, and several, including Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin,
consider maternal drug use to be grounds for civil or involuntary
commitment in a drug program prior to giving birth.
------------------------------

Predictably, these policies have curried favor with law-and-order advocates
and those supporting the war on drugs. But groups like the American Medical
Association (AMA), the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists,
the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Society of
Addiction Medicine, Amnesty International, and the March of Dimes have been
outspoken in their opposition to the measures.

A survey
<https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/01/policies-that-punish-pregnant-women-for-substance-use.html>
of drug treatment programs conducted in 2018 found that only 23 percent
were specifically geared toward serving folks who are pregnant or parenting.

“Transplacental drug transfer should not be subject to criminal sanction or
civil liability,” the AMA has written
<https://www.nationaladvocatesforpregnantwomen.org/medical_and_public_health_group_statements_opposing_prosecution_and_punishment_of_pregnant_women_revised_june_2018/>.
Punitive laws, it argues, lead people to avoid prenatal care, or worse,
give birth without trained medical personnel on hand.

“There is a growing consensus that drug use should be treated as a
public-health issue, not a criminal issue,” longtime prison abolition
activist Victoria Law, co-author of *Prison By Any Other Name
<https://www.akpress.org/prisonbyanyothername.html>*, says. “Prosecuting
someone like Chelsea Becker doesn’t bring her fetus back or help her grieve
her loss. Unfortunately, miscarriages and stillbirths are not uncommon;
quite simply, ‘fetal protection’ laws are terrible public policy.”

Law is also critical of both mandatory drug treatment and preemptive lockup
to keep someone from using. Her first concern, she says, involves prison
conditions.

“Pregnant people who are locked up get awful medical care which can lead to
stillbirths, low-birth-weight babies, miscarriages, and other bad birth
outcomes and the prison system is never held to account for any of this,”
Law says. “The medical neglect of pregnant prisoners, coupled with bad
prison food, is an outrage. And forcing someone into treatment that they
don’t want or are not yet ready for, never works.”

Moreover, a survey
<https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/01/policies-that-punish-pregnant-women-for-substance-use.html>
of drug treatment programs conducted in 2018 found that only 23 percent
were specifically geared toward serving folks who are pregnant or parenting.

Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women agrees with Law. “Just as
some inroads are being made to end the war on drugs, the arrest of pregnant
women is providing the fuel for continuing, or perhaps even expanding, it,”
she says. “While legislators cite lots of ‘fetal protection’ laws, the fact
is that no state legislature—with the exception of Tennessee, which passed
a ‘fetal assault’ law that was in effect from 2014 to 2016—has passed
legislation that authorizes arrests as a way to address pregnancy and drug
use.”

This, of course, does nothing to help Chelsea Becker as she languishes in
prison.

“The district attorney prosecuting Becker clearly believes that it is wrong
to treat drug use as a matter of public health. He sees it as a moral issue
that should be handled through arrest,” Paltrow says. “Just as some people
are denying the science around COVID-19, many prosecutors and supporters of
the drug war are denying the science around pregnancy, refusing to
acknowledge that poverty, racism, and lack of equal access to high-quality
medical care have more to do with healthy pregnancy outcomes than drug use.”


Eleanor J. Bader <https://progressive.org/topics/eleanor-j.-bader/>

Eleanor J. Bader is an award-winning New York City-based freelance writer
who covers domestic social issues including education, hunger and
homelessness, anti-poverty organizing, and movements for gender and
reproductive justice.

Read more by Eleanor J. Bader
<https://progressive.org/topics/eleanor-j.-bader/>

January 13, 2021

12:31 PM
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