Pregnant Women and Drug Addicts: They’re People, Too.

Last week, reader Jessica sent me a link to a story about new legislation being considered in her state that would forcibly imprison pregnant women suspected of being addicted to methamphetamine, sending them to drug treatment facilities against their will. The Arizona bill is, of course, designed to protect fetuses, not women.

The Senate Judiciary Committee took the first steps toward approving SB 1500 Monday, mandating that state Child Protective Services workers go to court if they know or have reasonable grounds to believe a mother-to-be is using meth and is not getting voluntary treatment.

That order would require the mother to cooperate.

The legislation would let CPS ask a judge to have sheriff’s deputies actually pick up the woman and bring her to a facility for treatment.

Sen. Pamela Gorman, R-Anthem, said she’s not normally a proponent of government intervention into private lives.

“But I do think that the state has some very specific roles,” she said. “And one of them is to protect people from harm from other people.”

Indeed: the state has a specific role to protect people from harm, so long as the person isn’t a pregnant woman being harmed by the government who thinks that pregnancy gives them total control over her body.

The bill would expand the child abuse statutes to include methamphetamine use during pregnancy — essentially, defining child abuse as something a woman does to harm herself, intentionally or unintentionally, while carrying a fetus. It seems that all legislators opposed to the bill are doing so on the basis that it challenges abortion rights, or at least presents a slippery slope for challenges later on down the line.

Critics of the proposal are concerned that Gorman is trying to give the measure some teeth by extending the definition of what now constitutes “child abuse” to fetuses.

Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix, pointed out the existing definition of child abuse includes acts that endanger the life of a child. He said Gorman’s bill could be interpreted as prohibiting abortion.

From a practical standpoint, Cheuvront said he doubts that Gov. Janet Napolitano would sign any bill she believes interferes with the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy.

Gorman said that wasn’t her intent.

But committee members refused to remove that language.

While I thank Cheuvront for opposing the bill and hope that he and other legislators continue to vocally do so, I think that his reasons are troubling and just plain off the mark. The problem is that, regardless of what Cheuvront actually feels, this kind of argument suggests that if it were possible to pass the legislation without putting abortion rights in any sort of danger, there would not be a problem.

I’m naturally wary of slippery slope arguments. They are often valid, but they often aren’t. Even when the slippery slope is a very real possibility, I think that this is just a shitty way to make your case. Okay, so the bill could potentially be used as a basis for anti-abortion legislation in the future. This is bad. But if it’s capable of doing this, there has to be a problem with the bill right now, a reason why this legislation is a bad idea for what it is and not what it could later encourage.

Luckily, there is such an argument, and it’s one that I’m actually far more concerned with at the moment.

Of course, this argument is one that’s a lot harder to make. Despite all of the anti-abortion wingnuts out there, there are a lot of people who support the rights of Good Women to have Legitimate Abortions. Arguing that the Bad Women who are addicted to drugs have a right to not be forcibly locked up just because they’re pregnant? Well, that’s a little bit trickier.

Or, it’s a bit trickier in terms of convincing those people who think that they’re all liberal-minded and supportive of women’s rights, but only do support women whose behavior they personally approve. You know, there are the Good Abortions — abortions by women who used birth control but got pregnant anyway and simply cannot raise a child due to financial concerns, and really it’s what’s best for the woman and potential child. And there are the Bad Abortions — abortions by women who didn’t use birth control, who have more than one sexual partner, or who can afford to raise a child but simply don’t want to, the ones at whom we can shake our heads and say tsk-tsk while feeling superior, the stupid horrible sluts who we couldn’t possibly relate to, and luckily, whose shoes we therefore never have to wear to walk a single step. Of course, those with this point of view could never possibly have a Bad Abortion themselves. The Bad Abortions are for other women, because otherwise it would defeat the whole purpose, which is to fit some bizarre and arbitrary cultural morality that says abortion is very icky and wrong, that is unless the woman has a very good reason that can pass each individual citizen’s personal legitimacy test.

You see, for many people, supporting the right to an abortion has very little to do with female bodily autonomy at all. It’s about securing a right that they feel they or a close family member may personally need one day. And few people ever anticipate themselves or a loved one having a crippling drug addiction.

Drug addiction is an illness, and certainly should not be considered a crime. But in the crazy drug war culture that we live in, it is. And many, many drug users go to prison. Well, correction: many, many black drug users go to prison. A whole lot of Hisplanic drug users, too. Of course, there are lots of white inmates in jail for drug offenses, but their numbers are not only extremely disproportionately low to the population as a whole, their numbers are also very disproportionately low to the population of drug users as a whole.

If the execution and focus of the laws weren’t exceedingly racist, I would still oppose them. In far more cases than not, incarcerating drug users only tends to ruin lives that were not already ruined by drugs and to do absolutely nothing positive for those who were already in the middle of a desperate addiction. Of course, we don’t arrest bipolar people simply for having a mental illness (though we may forcibly institutionalize them on occasion, which is more than bad enough). But though all experts classify addiction as a mental illness, large portions of society and the legal system still view it as a personal failing deserving of punishment. If you do think that the laws and enforcement aren’t racist, though, you’re kidding yourself.

The case of meth is an interesting one. It has been widely publicized that — horror of horrors — meth is a drug primarily used by white people. It’s a very dangerous drug that can destroy lives, and for some reason mostly white kids use it. This boggles the media’s mind, that white people also get highly unstable and do unwise or downright bad things when battling addiction. With crack, the media (run by white people) got to demonize and gawk at black addicts. Now with meth, you’ll see people sobbing and proclaiming “this could be your kid!”

So I have to say that with all trends regarding incarceration, targeting of drug users and vilification of pregnant addicts, why the hell they’re focusing on meth had me confused. It didn’t fit the narrative.

So I looked up some statistics. This study (pdf) includes surveys of law enforcement officials throughout 43 states in 2005 and 2006. Arizona was not one of those states, but it’s interesting nonetheless to look at the trends. Though the use of methamphetamine is supposedly skyrocketing and whites still make up a large majority of users, the percentage of users who are white men seems to be dropping. In the Southwest (where Arizona is located), 71% of sheriffs report an increase of use among women and over 50% report an increase of use among minority populations, particularly Hispanics and Native Americans. In Arizona, the rate of use among Native Americans is staggering and terrifying. The rate of teenagers who have tried methamphetamine in Arizona is 4%, twice the national average. But in Navajo County, where Native Americans make up almost 48% of the population, 10% of teenagers reported trying methamphetamine at least once.

Think that this might have anything, anything at all, to do with the bill coming up now?

It also turns out that (as of 2002, at least) women still make up a minority of methamphetamine users. So by targeting pregnant women specifically and openly, we’re not only talking about discrimination on the basis of sex, we’re also talking about discriminating against a group that does not make up a majority of the meth-using population. But hey, the woman-haters will argue, it’s not the legislators’ fault that only women can get pregnant! Yes, I’m sure that if men could get pregnant, we would not only still argue over abortion rights, we would also incarcerate men who take drugs while pregnant and handcuff them to hospital beds during labor. It’s not that our society hates women, it’s that our society hates anyone who has the capacity to bring another human life into this world. And biology just made it so women get stuck with the job. Tough break, huh? Nothing to do with prejudice at all.

Clearly, we don’t want pregnant women to use drugs, particularly one as dangerous as methamphetamine. Many would argue that this is because of the risk placed on the fetus. And certainly, we do want to discourage practices that are avoidable and could result in a baby being born with medical problems. But personally, I don’t want pregnant women using methamphetamine not because of what’s in their uteruses, but because I don’t want women using methamphetamine. The drug isn’t good for fetuses, but it sure as hell isn’t good for born adults, either.

Who wants to do to non-pregnant women what this bill proposes doing to pregnant women? Who wants to send sheriffs around to their homes, pick them up and force them into treatment facilities against their will, with no input from family, no choice whatsoever? A few people, I’m sure, but probably not most. We don’t want to do this because it would be dehumanizing, senselessly discriminating on the basis of sex and a violation of basic human rights, including those of proper due process. This doesn’t mean that we don’t care about drug users (though certainly many people don’t), it means that we still see them as people. So why the hell don’t we when the women are pregnant? Clearly, it’s because we’re used to reducing pregnant to objects and political arguments.

Still think that we should be looking out for the best interest of the fetus over the best interest of the woman? I disagree with you, but fine. Check out this excellent article from AlterNet. It was published in 2006, but you should read it anyway. If you’re so concerned about the fetus, actually show it some of that damn concern:

As leading public health and child welfare groups have long noted, pregnant women do not experience alcoholism and other drug dependencies because they want to harm their fetuses or because they don’t care about their children.

Medical knowledge about addiction and dependency treatment demonstrates that patients do not, and cannot, simply stop their drug use as a result of threats of arrest or other negative consequences. This is one reason why threat-based approaches do not work to stop drug use or to protect children. Such approaches have, in fact, been shown to deter pregnant women not from using drugs but rather from seeking prenatal care and what little drug and alcohol treatment may be available to them.

Health risks to women, fetuses and children — whether arising from poverty, inadequate nutrition, exposure to alcohol, drugs or other factors — can be mitigated through prenatal and continuing medical care and counseling.

For this to be effective, however, the woman must trust her health care providers to safeguard her confidences and to stand by her while she attempts to improve her health, even if those efforts are not always successful. Transforming health care encounters into grounds for prosecution and turning health care professionals into agents of law enforcement destroys this all-important trust.

If you want to keep that fetus safe, prove it by supporting the right of its mother to go to the fucking doctor.

Last year, Jill from Feministe wrote an excellent post on the subject of incarcerating pregnant drug addicts, which makes a lot of the points I want to make — including use of the book Killing the Black Body. Go read it. Now. Because I can’t top it.

But here are the facts. This bill would make criminals out of women because they have a mental illness. It would make women criminals simply because they became pregnant.  It would make women criminals simply because they’re low-income and couldn’t afford to become addicted to a different drug that wouldn’t land them in jail.  Regardless of the fact that most meth users are white, you better believe that this law would disproportionately affect women of color, most likely Native and Hispanic women in particular.

I absolutely oppose this bill. But it’s not because of any effect on abortion rights, even if it could potentially have one at some point. Whether or not this is the objective of the bill, I don’t know, but I don’t really think it matters. Either way, it’s wrong. And either way, some of the most vulnerable women in our society are being stripped of rights and used as political pawns.

I oppose this bill because I believe that pregnant women should have more rights than a choice between abortion and birth. I oppose this bill because I don’t believe that anyone becomes less of a person or loses basic human rights because of any medical condition. I oppose this bill not because I believe in abortion rights, but because I believe in social justice.

0 thoughts on “Pregnant Women and Drug Addicts: They’re People, Too.

  1. Feminist Avatar

    It’s a bit weird to pick on just meth addicts. What about heroin, crack, bipolar medication, cannabis, alcohol, caffeine, paracetamol, mouldy cheeses… ‘users’?

    I mean I get what you’re saying about rising numbers of meth addicts, but if it’s about protecting the foetus, as far as I was aware the risks of using meth are not subtantively different from other hard drugs. Weird logic to pick on one (not that I think this sort of legislation is a good thing at all).

  2. Cara Post author

    What exactly happens to a woman at the point of pregnancy that makes her unable to decide for herself when she could before implantation? Or are you one of those few people I referenced who think that we should drive around to the houses of all drug-users, steal them away in the middle of the night and lock them up until they accept the “help” we’re forcing down their throats and which they really have no choice in taking if they’d ever like to see their homes again?

  3. Jessica

    Thank you Cara for posting about this! You’re right, it is *much* more difficult to argue to others that even women whose choices they don’t agree with should have the same autonomy and rights. This is especially difficult in the context of drug addiction, which is so hugely misunderstood by society.

    Anyway, I like the way you approached the topic from a social justice standpoint. Due to the extreme politicization and frightening attack on abortion rights, it’s way too easy these days to get caught up in the choice/anti-choice fervor and forget to address the bigger picture.

  4. Lora

    Yes I do agree that it is not just the Meth drug that should be pointed out! All types of drugs are very harmful not just to the adult but to the child as well. Forcing the mother to a rehab is not the ultimate solution for the situation. Putting the mother under more stress will put the baby at a great risk. Yes there could be major health/nutrition risks that the mother and baby will endure but simply suggesting a well selected rehab clinic for the mother would enable her to want to receive the help that is needed.

    She has a choice to make not ours!


  5. lionheart

    wow, force women in jail if they are pregnant and addicted to meth? I don’t think this is truly an answer to the current problem.

  6. Pingback: Judge Bars Woman From Having Children : The Curvature

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