Now It’s Clear: “Pro-Life” Means “Pro-Imprisonment”

Must “restoring the historic right to life accorded to unborn children” require that women, including new mothers who have given birth, go to prison?

Last week, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed to consider an amicus (friend of the court) brief filed by the Liberty Counsel in support of the prosecutions of Hope Ankrom and Amanda Kimbrough. The Liberty Counsel describes itself as an organization whose mission includes protecting “the inalienable right to life guaranteed to all, including unborn children.” While a number of “pro-life” leaders claim that recognizing the rights of the unborn and re-criminalizing abortion should not and will not lead to the arrest or punishment of women, the Liberty Counsel has clearly and unequivocally taken the position that “restoring the historic right to life accorded to unborn children” requires that women, including new mothers who have given birth, go to prison.

Ms. Ankrom and Ms. Kimbrough are two of approximately 60 women who have been arrested under Alabama’s 2006 Chemical Endangerment law. The overwhelming majority of these women have given birth to healthy babies.

The Chemical Endangerment law originally was passed to create special penalties for people who bring children into methamphetamine labs. Despite the law’s clear purpose, prosecutors have argued, and the Alabama’s mid-level Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed, that the law may also be used to arrest and jail women who become pregnant, eschew abortion, and go to term, despite having used a controlled substance. In other words, the Court of Appeals has ruled that under Alabama’s Chemical Endangerment law a pregnant woman who has never been to a meth lab and who has never brought a child into a meth lab, can be punished for bringing a child into the world if she tests positive for a controlled substance—even one prescribed to her by her doctor. 

According to the Liberty Counsel, the “convictions of the Defendants under the chemical endangerment law properly protect unborn children as preborn human beings. . . .” Forty-seven medical, public health and legal advocacy groups and individuals, who filed their own amicus brief in these cases, disagree. 

These organizations and experts, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Nurses Association, have concluded that using the criminal law to address issues of drug use during pregnancy undermines, rather than protects, “unborn children.” One reason is that threats of arrest have been shown to deter pregnant women from drug treatment and prenatal and other healthcare that can help ensure maternal, fetal, and child health. Furthermore, if these prosecutions continue, pregnant women who are addicted to drugs and who cannot overcome that addiction in the short term of pregnancy will be pressured into having unwanted abortions to avoid criminal penalties. That is what happened in the Greywind case, in which a pregnant woman had an abortion in order to get the state of North Dakota to drop “fetal endangerment” charges against her.

So why would a group that claims to value life urge Alabama’s highest court to uphold an interpretation of the chemical endangerment law that coerces women into having abortions and punish the ones who don’t?

The answer, perhaps, lies in the Liberty Counsel’s brief that purports to document the historic view that the “unborn child is fully human” and protected by law. This brief references 19th century anti-abortion activists who firmly believed that the only proper role for women (white ones at least) is as wives and mothers. The Liberty Counsel’s brief quotes with approval one such activist who asserted that a woman who even considers having an abortion “. . .demoralizes her whole moral being. It is a prostitution of all her higher nature.”  

Whatever the Liberty Counsel’s reasons, this “pro-life” group argues that the Alabama Supreme Court “should uphold the convictions and thereby move toward restoration of the life-affirming worldview that predated Roe.” It is difficult, however, to see what is “life-affirming” about hauling off to jail new mothers who just gave birth and leaving their children motherless? Penalties under the Chemical Endangerment law range from not less than 1-year-and-1-day to up to 99 years (life) in prison.

Since 2005, National Advocates for Pregnant Women has documented hundreds of cases in Alabama and elsewhere in which women have been arrested for allegedly endangering their pregnancies including: Christine Taylor in Iowa who was charged with attempted fetal homicide after she fell down a flight of stairs while pregnant, Jennie McCormick in Idaho who was charged with having an illegal abortion, and Bei Bei Shuai in Indiana who has been charged with murder for suffering a pregnancy loss after a suicide attempt. 

The Liberty Counsel has established that the “pro-life” position is “pro-punishment,” not just for doctors who perform abortions, and not just for women who intentionally end their pregnancies and have abortions, but also for pregnant women who have no intention of ending their pregnancies and go to term.

Feminists for Life has, apparently, distinguished itself from this point of view. But what about all of the other groups including Priests for Life, Generations for Life, and Americans United for Life that have assured the public that women will not go to jail if their point of view becomes law? If “pro-life” does not mean “pro-imprisonment,” now would be a good time to speak up and stop the growing assault on the dignity, sanctity, and liberty of the women who bring forth life.

Where are they?