It Wasn’t Even An April Fool’s Joke: Tennessee Women Jailed for Drug Use While Pregnant, Even Though Law Said They Couldn’t Be
Tennessee women who take illegal drugs during their pregnancy cannot be arrested for the harm they do to their babies. But some ended up in jail anyway.
That’s because some police and prosecutors — unaware state law changed last year — pursued criminal charges thinking they had the authority to do that. They did not realize lawmakers eliminated their ability to charge women with assault or homicide against their unborn children.
Even the state attorney general overlooked the change when he issued a written opinion Jan. 7 about whether women could be prosecuted.
Well, that just fills me with confidence about the justice system in this state.
Avoiding criminalization pregnant women with drug addictions is sound public health policy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says “The use of the legal system to address perinatal alcohol and substance abuse is inappropriate.”
There’s a good reason why public health people object to criminalization of these women, and it’s a reason that’s actually good for protecting the health of women and babies. Women with addictions who fear prosecution avoid prenatal care, and don’t get help for their substance abuse issues. Criminalization, on the other hand, simply demonizes women for not performing perfectly as incubators, especially low-income women with fewer resources for care.
The criminalization approach simply fills jails and separates families, rather than ensuring both mother and baby have the best chance at being healthy and forming health relationships. From one affected woman:
“The day before I was supposed to bring my daughter home from the hospital, they took me to jail. My daughter is almost 8 months old, and I’ve never spent time alone with her.”
It’s unfortunately not unusual to treat women as though they are simply baby vessels, expected to perform perfectly on command. One thing I notice in the tone of the Tennessean article is the lack of emphasis on the barriers to getting addiction therapy while pregnant, or the need to actually help women with this. Instead, there is disappointment about not getting to prosecute new mothers against the advice of public health experts. It’s all as if it’s simply natural to look at women as baby-making objects who should be acted on for everybody else’s good.
“Hemenway said she would prefer to be able to bring charges”
“Even though we don’t like it, we don’t think we can charge the two ladies in these cases.”
There’s also a real lack of emphasis on anything specific about actual damages to the specific children whose mothers were wrongly jailed. There has been a fair bit of scholarship on the hype and misinformation of the “crack baby” epidemic, and we know that not all drug use has the same severity of effect. What we get in the news coverage, though, is:
“a 30-year-old Murfreesboro woman gave birth to medically fragile twins on Sept. 5 after using cocaine and opiates, and ‘very rarely’ attending prenatal visits, according to court records”
and in another case
“Her charging document didn’t specify an exact incident date for her drug use, although it does refer to Crum smoking cigarettes and failing to get prenatal care for 12 weeks.”
and about nobody in particular
“Medical records filed in courts show the birth defects and costly hospital stays that accompany many drug-addicted newborns. These babies are often born premature and suffer seizures, vomiting and hyperactivity.”
Now, maybe they can’t talk about it because there are cases pending or whatever. And some drug exposures can indeed have negative effects on babies. But twins are often born “medically fragile,” period. Cigarettes are legal. Smoking during pregnancy is legal. A specific number and timing of prenatal care visits is not mandated by law. It seems like, if we’re talking about jailing women for addictions suffered during pregnancy, while doing very little as a society to actually help them get better, we ought to at least be able to be specific and avoid all the hand-waving about what specific damage warranted the taking away of their freedom. Nothing in the above does that for the cases described, where women were jailed under a law that wasn’t even real at the time.
It comes as no surprise that the newspaper article online is getting comments like, “they shouldn’t get pregnant,” or “they should have gotten off drugs before they got pregnant.” Look, fully half of the pregnancies in this country are unintended, across all types of folks. People have no room to be self-righteous about planning pregnancy when that rate is so high, and when there can be many systemic barriers in place to getting help with addictions and preventing pregnancy in the first place. When addiction itself can make it more difficult to consistently use contraception. Fear of prosecution and lack of contextually sensitive treatment programs are huge barriers for women who find themselves pregnant with an addiction, and many women simply cannot afford addiction therapy at any time.
It’s not like two lines on a stick is a kind of magic that makes addiction vanish. It’s not like we have good options in place for pregnant women with addictions. It’s not like we can reasonably, legally prohibit pregnant women from taking any actions with any possible risks for fetuses. Should we all be legally required to present for X number of prenatal visits? To stay home? To avoid car travel? To avoid coffee? Are we actually interested in helping mothers and babies, or in controlling and punishing women for failing to perform perfectly as incubators, in reminding women that they are under surveillance because we want something out of them?
Apparently we are so zealous in our desire to punish drug-addicted mothers, that we can’t be bothered to learn when laws change. We just jail them anyway. Forget whether it’s good health policy – it wasn’t even the law.
A related article explains that a couple of bills are up for consideration in Tennessee, debate over which will further demonstrate what folks think the answers are to the questions above.
The Safe Harbor Act (SB 0459/HB 0277) would give pregnant women priority for entry at drug treatment centers, requires centers that get public funding to treat pregnant women, and prevents healthcare providers from seeking to terminate pregnant women’s parental rights because of addiction. In other words, it encourages access to treatment and avoids punishment of pregnant women with drug addiction problems. Another bill tries to make it so 90% of the women in the state have access to prenatal care.
In contrast, HB 1295/SB 1391 would make it so a woman could prosecuted for assault or murder if she uses a narcotic drug while pregnant and the child is born addicted, is harmed, or dies.
One of those approaches does something positive for the health of mothers and babies. The other gets off on punishing women. Full stop.
The National Advocates for Pregnant Women is an excellent resource for learning about this issue.
These previous posts of mine may also be of interest for exploring the topic of pregnant women’s rights:
Expanded Commentary on SB1065/HB890 – Forced Drug Tests for Pregnant Women
Case on Court-Ordered Bed Rest Highlights Reproductive Rights Concerns for Pregnant Women
Exploring the “Crack Baby” Myth
Of particular importance is this:
Drug-Addicted Women Need Medical Care, Not Jail
V-Day at Vanderbilt University Presents: A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer 2013 – Nashville, TN
Announcement for an event tomorrow, Wednesday March 27th at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN (6-8pm).
Vanderbilt Feminists in partnership with VUEES is happy to present “A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, and A Prayer.”
This is a groundbreaking collection of monologues by world-renowned authors and playwrights, edited by Eve Ensler and Mollie Doyle. These diverse voices rise up in a collective roar to break open, expose, and examine the insidiousness of violence at all levels: brutality, neglect, a punch, even a put-down. The reading will feature members of the Vanderbilt community who are proud to speak out to end violence.
Tickets are $7 and are available at Sarratt Box Office
*All proceeds from this event will go toward ending violence against women and girls locally*
An LGBTI health fair being run by the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s Program for LGBTI Health is taking place this Saturday, March 23rd at the One Hundred Oaks mall from noon to 4:00 pm.
Services will include diabetes, HIV, and blood pressure screening and other resources. There will also be food, and entertainment by the Nashville in Harmony choir. The event takes place in the first floor conference room; use the “A” entrance on the back side of 100 Oaks.
If you need to take the bus to get there, you’ll want the #17 (12th Avenue South) bus route.
Here’s the flyer:
Or view on scribd at http://www.scribd.com/doc/131719942/LGBTI-ad-2013
- Miles was Joel’s and my first pet together. We were living in an apartment and couldn’t get a dog, which both of us were more familiar with. We went to the PetSmart in Knoxville, TN where a local org did adoptions and picked him out when he was about 3 months old.
- The adoption people let us take him with us around the store for a bit while they finished up our paperwork or something. I didn’t know anything about cats, so I accidentally riled him up by hugging him too tightly and putting him in the shopping cart. I had to take him back to the lady and told her he had gotten too riled up to carry around.
- Miles was the first cat in our naming trend, ending up in us eventually having an Ella, Charlie, and Sarah as well.
- Being our first, I had no idea young cats lost teeth like humans do. It really freaked me out when I found one in the carpet, and of course I called the vet to ask about it. I don’t think we even had internet access at home at the time.
- Miles actually played fetch – you could toss a paper ball or milk ring (his favorites), and he would bring them back to go again. He taught us this game, rather than us teaching him.
- Miles like to drink from the bathroom sink, across the various places we lived. He would come and meow for it, and lead us to the bathroom, where he would jump up to the sink and demand to be petted prior to drinking. I always joked that he could easily learn to turn the water on and off himself in our current house, but I suppose that’s beneath cats.
- At this one apartment, I couldn’t find him when we came back inside from something, and I completely freaked out. I became convinced he had gotten outside, and I never let cats outside. I frantically looked around, and stopped a group of people to ask if they’d seen him, to be ignored. I blurted in my extremely rusty Spanish, “un gato, gris y blanco!” and then they talked to me. I later found him in the apartment, underneath clothes in a deep cloth hamper, where he’d been all along.
- At that first apartment, we didn’t have a bed, just a mattress on the floor. Kitten Miles tormented us in the middle of the night by lying on his side with his claws to the mattress, and scooting himself quickly around the perimeter of the mattress, pausing to claw our feet as he passed them.
- Mr. Miles like to sleep on the bed with us, and we would often wake up with him on/between our legs. I missed that a lot when I woke up this morning.
- Miles was extremely time-oriented, and could always be counted on to remind me when it was dinner time for kitties. He was also extremely interested in dairy products, and could be counted on to meow his head off whenever cheese, yogurt, milk, or ice cream made an appearance. I’m going to miss his meowing for food, very much.
- This one time he got into a plastic shopping bag we had just put down, and somehow got tangled in it. It had a coat hanger in it, and he ran all over the apartment like a rocket, trying to get away from whatever was thumping behind him.
- He was grey (mostly on top) and white (mostly on bottom; (like a great white), leading me to call him a “shark kitty.” He had a white area on one shoulder with a big heart-shaped grey patch. I was always convinced that his white fur was softer, and spent some amount of time trying to pet his belly. That went over about as well as you would expect.
Using taxpayer dollars to finance family-planning services has become politically thorny in Texas, largely because of Republican lawmakers’ assertions that the women’s health clinics providing that care are affiliated with abortion providers. In the fiscal crunch of 2011, the Legislature cut the state’s family-planning budget by two-thirds, with some lawmakers claiming that they were defunding the “abortion industry.” Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, found that more than 50 family-planning clinics had closed statewide as a result.
Now, amid estimates that the cuts could lead to 24,000 additional 2014-15 births at a cost to taxpayers of $273 million, lawmakers are seeking a way to restore financing without ruffling feathers.
How about we just do what’s right for women’s access to healthcare and control of their own reproduction, ruffled feathers be damned.
A gang rape happened in Ohio and no one heard about it. A gang rape happened in India and everyone heard about it (as we should). The American media has represented India as a misogynistic country where women need to be constantly wary of the men that surround them….While our media went out representing India as a typical place for these deplorable events to happen, another woman’s similar story went ignored and without subsequent societal action. This country outright refuses to admit that it is a rape culture.
…where she drew outrage was in her suggestion to Hannity that “I don’t think that we should be telling women anything. I think we should be telling men not to rape women and start the conversation there.” She told Hannity, “You’re talking about this as if it’s some faceless, nameless criminal, when a lot of times it’s someone you know and trust,” adding, “If you train men not to grow up to become rapists, you prevent rape.”
We are Oberlin…And Here’s Our Dirty Laundry: This is a good post at Racialicious on the recent hate speech incidents at Oberlin College (of which I’m an alum). And let me just add that regardless of whether someone was in actual KKK regalia, in something meant to look like KKK regalia, or just wearing a damn misconstrued blanket, the reaction it generated among students wouldn’t have looked anything like it did if there weren’t some serious privilege, race, ethnicity, diversity, and awareness issues to address on that campus, and a history of recent concerning events. I watched the Convocation, and what I heard were students demanding to be educated, to have their concerns addressed in a systemic way, and a President listing off his credentials and saying it’s gonna be fine without making concrete promises beyond “investigation.” You can guess whose side I come down on.
Hate Speech Incidents Continue
An Open Letter from Students of the Africana Community (timeline of events leading up to Convocation)
Vandalism, Harassment Inspire Systemic Reform
It ignores LGBT people of color in favor of promoting alliances between people of color and (erroneously by default presumed to be white LGBT people), but it will probably still give you chills:
Chuck Grassley accidentally becomes pro-choice – LOL. But only if you don’t want the government forcing you to have something in your body. Ahem.
Book things, haven’t read these yet: Two New Children’s Books About Gender-Independent Kids and LLF Announces Finalists of the 25th Annual Lambda Literary Awards
Arkansas passed a ban on abortions after 12 weeks. It’s surely unconstitutional.
Arkansas Abortion Law Bans Procedures After 12 Weeks of Pregnancy
Arkansas Abortion Ban Disproportionately Affects Poor Women and Teenagers
ACLU Statement on Arkansas Senate Passage of Bill to Ban Most Restrictive Abortion Law in the Country
Activists Will Challenge Arkansas’ New Abortion Limit
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard has signed into law a bill that forces women to wait three days before they can obtain an abortion in the state; under the law, weekends and holidays do not count toward that waiting period.
A day of appreciation for abortion providers is being observed. I’d like to point to and give thanks to future providers as well, recognizing Medical Students for Choice and Nursing Students for Choice, for doing the work of making sure competent providers are being trained for the future.
The President signed the Violence Against Women Act, including provisions to improve protection for Native American, LGBT, low income, and immigrant women.
Plants for Patients: advocating wellness and pro-compassion
This is pretty terrific, a North Dakota non-profit started by a ceramics artist making planters and giving them with plants to post-abortion patients as a show to support and compassion. Here’s their homepage, and they’re also on Facebook and Twitter.
Recent thing at OBOS: Europe Takes on Review of Birth Control Pills Containing Drospirenone, because there are concerns that newer pills like Yaz are not as safe as some other existing options.
And, finally, via MedlinePlus a list of resources on anxiety. On my mind because of a stressful situation and my own catastrophizing.
Forced Ultrasound and Post-Ultrasound Waiting Period for Abortion Proposed in Tennessee – My analysis of the bill from last month.
Jim Tracy Withdraws His Ultrasound Bill – includes discussion and speculation on SJR127, the proposed state constitutional amendment that would allow more restrictions after passage and allow a total ban in the unlikely event that Roe were overturned. SJR127 going to a vote by Tennesseans in 2014, so that’s not likely to turn out well for reproductive justice in this state.
The sponsor of the forced ultrasound bill made a statement like they were withdrawing this bill in order to “focus all of our efforts on promoting its [SJR127's] passage on the 2014 ballot.” One, we expect SJR 127 to pass. Two, they probably didn’t want to distract the voting public with actual debate on a real example of how egregious the restrictions they want to use SJR 127 to enact actually are (hey, like forced medical tests!). Three, even if passed, the forced ultrasound bill might have been unconstitutional as is – until SJR 127 passes. Ugh.
Abortion Ultrasound Bill Shelved by Sponsors – let me just highlight the quote from Rep. Rick Womick:
“Given the fact that most abortion clinics in Tennessee already administer an ultrasound before performing an abortion, it only makes sense that we as legislators should be allowed to ensure that the pregnant mother is given the opportunity to see the video and hear the heartbeat,” added Representative Womick.
That is such utter bullshit. There’s a tremendous gap between “a medical provider might use their judgment that an ultrasound is needed and a woman might consent to that” and forcing all women to have them regardless as a hoop to jump through to obtain a legal medical procedure. Providers who do conduct ultrasounds right now could already offer women the chance to see/hear, whereas the forced ultrasound bill would have required them to either see it or listen to a description even if they didn’t want to – even if they were rape or incest victims, or pregnant with a desperately wanted child they were unable to carry to term. Also, somehow I doubt that when Womick refers to “the pregnant mother” he’s talking about the two thirds of women who are already mothers when they have abortions – he’s simply framing women in terms of who he thinks they should be, what they can produce, and how he’d like to legally require that production.
Sponsors of Tennessee Forced Ultrasound Bill Turn to Constitutional Amendment Instead – This is SJR 127 getting some attention from national-level coverage at a repro rights info depot. So we’ll be waiting for all y’all from away to help us defeat that next year, okay?