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The Mamafesto: The criminalization of pregnancy and motherhood

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

Does becoming pregnant mean losing your civil rights?

For many, pregnancy can be a challenging time, where your body doesn't even feel like your own. Unfortunately, there's a disturbing trend occurring across the country that takes this notion to a frightening place, stripping pregnant women of their civil rights, and essentially taking legal control over their bodies.

Over at The New York Times, Lynn M. Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin take a look at a variety of legal cases where women have been unduly targeted under anti-abortion rulings, even women who were not actually seeking abortions. Many abortion bans in various states go past limiting abortion rights and include ways of targeting women, placing the rights of the fetus ahead of the mother. Paltrow and Flavin provide a laundry list of women who were impacted by these types of laws. Not one of them was seeking an abortion.

  • A judge in Washington, D.C., ordered a critically ill 27-year-old woman who was 26 weeks pregnant to undergo a cesarean section, which he understood might kill her. Neither the woman nor her baby survived.
  • In Iowa, a pregnant woman who fell down a flight of stairs was reported to the police after seeking help at a hospital. She was arrested for "attempted fetal homicide."
  • In Utah, a woman gave birth to twins; one was stillborn. Health care providers believed that the stillbirth was the result of the woman's decision to delay having a cesarean. She was arrested on charges of fetal homicide.
  • In Louisiana, a woman who went to the hospital for unexplained vaginal bleeding was locked up for over a year on charges of second-degree murder before medical records revealed she had suffered a miscarriage at 11 to 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Unfortunately, these are only a handful of examples where policy is being used to criminalize women and their pregnancies. The anti-choice contingent is so feverishly against abortion that they are willing to trample on the rights of all women to push their beliefs. Because of their unwillingness to trust women, they're making it more difficult for those they ostensibly want to protect: moms and babies. Imagine being pregnant, taking a bad fall and having a miscarriage late into your pregnancy. In addition to the horrible grief you'd most likely experience, depending on the state you live in, you might also have to fear being charged with fetal homicide. That is absolutely unacceptable.

And, unfortunately, it's only the entry point for the overall criminalization of motherhood we've been seeing in our country. Our society holds up ideals of motherhood for all to emulate, while at the same time it looks down on and demonizes poor mothers and mothers of color. We can't pick and choose which mothers to support — it simply doesn't work that way. We need to offer more support and better policy — and by that I mean not legally targeting mothers for things like miscarriages or stillborn babies.

Instead of sensationalizing and exploiting stories about pregnant women and mothers, let's change up the narrative, provide platforms for more voices and support them with policies that don't target them. Criminalizing women and mothers in hopes of preventing abortion isn't going to help babies or families. If anything, it will only hurt them in the end.

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