Friday, May 9, 2014

Demonizing Mothers In Greatest Need

"Just remember, you don't come first anymore."

These were words said to me by a friend over the phone after I told him I was pregnant with my first child. This took me way off guard as this was a liberal friend who I knew through the Humanist movement. An awkward silence followed, after which I struggled to articulate a response. I finally said something like, "I think we both come first. After all, I can't take good care of a kid if I don't take good care of myself."

Why would such a reminder be necessary or appropriate? I was an adult woman with a career, great marriage, financial security,  good health, and family support. With all that going for me, the only way I'd be an awful parent is if I'm an awful human being.

I doubt my friend thinks I'm an awful human being. But I also doubt he'd have made that comment to my husband or any other father.

There is a pervasive message in our culture that when women become pregnant and then mothers, we're taking on some monumental endeavor, opposed to one that is, while significant, commonplace. It is as if, such as in this Shel Silverstein drawing, we're escorted to a pedestal, after which the only options are to climb atop to be revered as goddess-like matrons, or fall short of expectations and be despised.

For over a decade, legislation such as the Unborn Victims of Violence Act has turned on women before their children are even born, criminalizing the abuse pregnant women inflict on themselves due to mental illness, addiction, and/or desperate circumstances, because that damage extends to a fetus.

The most obscene example of prosecution and imprisonment of a woman because of severe health issues suffered while pregnant is the case of Bei Bei Shuai. Shuai attempted suicide with rat poison after her unborn child's father left her. Friends found and saved her, but after treatment, an emergency c-section and the subsequent death of her baby, she was charged with murder and imprisoned. At one point the prosecution offered a deal if Shuai would plead guilty to feticide, but she refused. In the end, she plead guilty to criminal recklessness. But not before she'd already spent over a year behind bars.

There are other cases, such as that of Melissa Ann Rowland, a mentally ill addict with a record of child abuse, who was charged with murder for not having a c-section that would have saved her fetus. Rennie Gibbs who was charged with murder for her use of cocaine, resulting in the stillbirth of her child. Neither of these charges resulted in convictions, but the persistent trend is disturbing.

Alabama has prosecuted 60 addicts who used while pregnant. One well-publicized case was Amanda Kimbrough, charged with chemical endangerment for the use of meth during her pregnancy and leading to the premature birth and immediate death of her child.

Most recently, Tennessee passed SB 1391, a bill that allows women to be charged with assault if their children are harmed by their drug use. It passed despite warnings from pretty much the entire medical establishment that the law would discourage addicts from seeking treatment while pregnant.

Imani Gandy of RH Reality Check wrote:

Multiple medical associations and counseling services, as well as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Other Addiction Services, opposed SB1391 as the dangerous threat it is.  
These doctors stressed that any such law would continue a frightening trend of women who fail to seek out prenatal care – 23% of pregnant women in Tennessee receive none at all, and the trend is more common among women of color. A 2009 review by the National Institutes of Health found that 30% of women in a study failed to get prenatal care because of substance abuse problems.

The only aspect of SB 1391 that saves it from being a totally heinous attack on women who suffer from addiction is an amendment which gives women the option of abandoning charges if they enter an approved treatment program. Of course by that point, the damage is already done. 
There are two issues with these laws that criminalize the behavior of pregnant women. The first is an issue of choice. The biological reality is that a fetus, while a discreet human organism, is completely dependent on the woman as incubator for his or her survival. There is no perfect comparison to this situation in the real world. However it says something that we do not force people to be organ donors, even in death, and even though doing so would certainly save lives.

A woman who neglects or abuses her children can have those children removed and placed in the care of other adults. This is not an option if the "child" is a fetus. If fetuses are given the same legal rights as children, then every pregnant woman no longer has the same rights that everyone else has over our bodies. 

In his stand up, George Carlin said:

If a fetus is a human being, how come the census doesn't count them? If a fetus is a human being then how come when there's a miscarriage they don't have a funeral? If a fetus is a human being then how come people say "We have two children and one on the way." instead of saying "We have three children."
Carlin makes the point that culturally and legally, we acknowledge the difference between a fetus and a baby that can live independent of its mother's body. Laws such as SB 1391 are little more than anti-abortionist attempts to establish a legal precedent out of line with these societal norms.

The second issue with these laws is the harmful outcomes.

As much as people might despise a woman who smokes crack cocaine while pregnant, much mental illness and addiction is exacerbated if not caused by the conditions of poverty, and are therefore preventable. Putting the mentally ill and addicts in prison only makes a bad situation worse.

We now have evidence that growing up in the conditions of poverty are more harmful to a child than being a "crack baby."

Now, after nearly a quarter century, the federally funded study was ending, and the question the researchers had been asking was answered.

Did cocaine harm the long-term development of children like Jaimee, who were exposed to the drug in their mother's womb?

The researchers had expected the answer would be a resounding yes. But it wasn't. Another factor would prove far more critical.
That other factor: poverty.

Of course if poverty can have a worse impact on a child than exposure to crack while in the womb, harsh conditions of poverty can also impact the health and choices made by pregnant women. Poverty is associated with increased drug abuse and more prevalent mental illness. People like to point to rich addicts such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman and say, "See, anyone can be an addict." The implication being that it is simply a matter of personal will. But these arguments fall apart when we look at the statistics and the horrible impact poverty has, particularly on children and the women who bare and raise them.

More than one in five children are growing up in poverty, and 75% of households under the poverty line are headed by mothers. What business do we as a society have imprisoning women who suffer from serious health problems when we don't have a universal, comprehensive health care system, we're cutting supplemental food programs, Head Start, and public schools in poor communities are failing. If we want better outcomes for children, we need to give more support to the adults who bare and raise them.

They say that behind every great man is a great woman. This Mother's Day let's remember that behind every exceptional mother, there's both a history and present community of support.

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