Brittney. Amanda. Purvi. Their Fates Could Be Your Future.

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Culture & Conversation My Body. My Rules.

Brittney. Amanda. Purvi. Their Fates Could Be Your Future.

Imani Gandy

These are some of the first victims of a war on pregnant people. It's a war that will end with mass incarceration, surveillance, and even death.

For more on the criminalization of pregnancy, check out our special edition.

One of the consequences of this country’s long and unwinnable war on drugs is that we have a fraught relationship with narcotics. It has been hammered into our heads since our first “Just Say No!” assembly in elementary school that drugs are bad and that people who do drugs are Bad People. And if a person becomes dependent or addicted to drugs, then it’s their fault and they should be punished. Not helped, mind you. Punished.

And if those Bad People are parents? Well, those Bad People are Bad Parents, too.

Far too many laws are predicated on the idea that the kinds of people who use drugs while pregnant are bad, just like the kinds of people who would get an abortion. That they’re baby killers. And that they deserve to be punished.

States have been taking it upon themselves to punish Bad Parents for a while now. From Alabama to Indiana to Oklahoma, state authorities—people who, if you asked them, would say they believe in family values—are splitting up families. They’re throwing parents in jail. Punishing them for violating child abuse laws, fetal homicide laws, and child endangerment laws, even if the legislatures that passed those laws didn’t intend to criminalize bad pregnancy outcomes. And most of those women are poor, women of color, or both.

Purvi Patel. Amanda Kimbrough. Brittney Poolaw. Bei Bei Shuai. Regina McKnight. All women ingested something they weren’t supposed to, whether recreationally or in an attempt to alleviate mental health trauma. For Amanda and Brittney, it was meth. For Purvi, she allegedly took abortion pills. For Bei Bei, rat poison. And for Regina, it was cocaine. Each was targeted by state authorities who wanted to punish rather than help them—authorities who happily wielded the criminal code as a weapon against vulnerable women who were meant to be protected by these laws.

In Indiana, a feticide law, which was intended to provide a remedy to pregnant people who experience pregnancy loss at the hands of a third party, was used to sentence Purvi Patel to 41 years in prison for illegally self-managing an abortion. Unfortunately, Indiana’s feticide law does not expressly say that pregnant people are not subject to prosecution, and that gave prosecutors in Purvi’s case a lot of wiggle room.

It was different for Amanda Kimbrough. The law the Alabama authorities used to prosecute her was not intended to apply to pregnant people; it was passed in 2006 to protect children exposed to hazardous home-based meth labs. Yet Amanda found herself in jail after a stillbirth. Her obstetrician said the cause was “occult cord prolapse,” when the umbilical cord passes through the birth canal alongside the fetus. It is a dangerous delivery complication that can cut off blood flow to the fetus. But after a urine test showed methamphetamines in her system, Amanda became a Bad Mother in the eyes of authorities in Alabama; they chose to ignore the doctor’s diagnosis and instead blamed the infant’s death on his mother’s drug use. She was sentenced to ten years in prison after pleading guilty to chemical endangerment, and on January 11, 2013, the Alabama Supreme Court, after essentially agreeing that a statute intended to address children living in meth labs could be used to prosecute Amanda, upheld her conviction. Amanda’s womb, apparently, was a meth lab under the law.

State authorities grasping at laws to imprison pregnant people are part of a conservative Christian evangelical agenda, including a massive surveillance state that will incarcerate any pregnant person who engages in disfavored behavior.

Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant, ingested rat poison in an attempt to end her own life. She was in distress and clearly in need of mental health care. Instead she was jailed for 435 days. Another Bad Mother who got what was coming to her.

Just this fall, Brittney Poolaw, a Native American woman, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison. As with Amanda Kimbrough, there was no clear evidence that the use of meth caused Brittney’s miscarriage.

The case of Regina McKnight is one of the most egregious. Toward the tail end of the “crack baby crazy” during the 1980s and ‘90s when this country was gripped by mass hysteria about primarily Black women using crack cocaine during their pregnancies and birthing a generation of crack-addled misfits, Regina was sentenced to 20 years in prison after using cocaine while pregnant. After being incarcerated for eight years, she was released when the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned her conviction in 2008. The court said her attorney had ignored evidence that her pregnancy loss may not have been linked to cocaine and, as a result, her trial had not been fair. Just like Amanda and Brittney, Regina had been tossed into prison based on a dubious link between drug use and the death of her fetus.

State authorities grasping at laws to imprison pregnant people are part of a conservative Christian evangelical agenda, including a massive surveillance state that will incarcerate any pregnant person who engages in disfavored behavior. That agenda will demand compliance, and for those who are unwilling, it will demand your freedom.

It will also demand that pregnant people regard health-care workers with distrust. When states require health-care workers to report suspected drug use—or when a health-care worker’s own biases prompt them to treat a Black woman differently than a white woman, or a poor white woman differently than a wealthy one—the doctor-patient relationship takes a hit, and poor women and women of color begin to distrust the health-care system in the same way they distrust government systems intended to help them but which end up hurting them even more. If you are a person of color, systemic racism and bias in health care may land you in prison. Along with the stress of being pregnant, a pregnant person of color must take on the added burden of trying to figure out if it’s safe to be open and honest with health-care workers, or if they should withhold information and hope that doing so doesn’t affect the care they receive.

Amanda. Bei Bei. Brittney. Purvi. Regina. These are names you should remember. These are some of the first victims of a war on the bodies of women and other people capable of becoming pregnant—a war that will end with mass incarceration, surveillance, and even death. These are women whose names have been dragged through the mud but whose circumstances may not seem so unfamiliar under the harsh light of interrogation. Is that alcohol I smell on your breath? How much did you drink? Where’s the prescription for those pills? Why weren’t you wearing a seatbelt? One step out of line and you too could be branded a Bad Mother. A Bad Parent. Don’t want to have a scheduled C-section? Why are you being so difficult? Want to have a natural home birth? Just have this epidural and wait for the surgeon. You too could have a newborn child ripped away. You too could lose custody of the kids you left at home while you struggled through labor at a hospital you can’t afford to stay at. You too could sit by as authorities ignore a doctor’s diagnosis and train their eyes on you.

Amanda. Bei Bei. Brittney. Purvi. Regina. These women are specters of future victims of an unjust system. One of those victims could be you. Or someone close to you. Maybe they’ve had a glass of wine and after a miscarriage, a knock on the door from the police ensnares them into a criminal justice system that chews up vulnerable people and spits their carcasses out bone dry into the street. Maybe they just demanded some choice in how they give birth.

A gathering storm

There’s a storm gathering, and at the eye of that storm is pure reproductive tyranny. Once Roe v. Wade falls, “personhood” is the next gold ring anti-abortion advocates will try to grab. We are already seeing renewed personhood efforts in Mississippi. Other states where such efforts failed a decade ago will soon follow.

These personhood efforts will lead to more criminalization of pregnant people in those states, as officials wrestle with what it means for a developing pregnancy to have protection against physical assault by the person carrying it. States like Alabama, which has long contorted its criminal code in order to prosecute pregnant people who use drugs under its chemical endangerment law, will be free from the fiction that a pregnant meth user’s womb is comparable to a meth lab. Laws appointing attorneys to fetuses, which I have mocked as absurd time and again, will become unremarkable. After all, a fetus is a person and a person is entitled to counsel, aren’t they?

And once fertilized eggs have the same rights as Black and brown women are supposed to have, guess whose rights will disappear almost as if they never existed at all?

With Roe on the ropes and the anti-abortion movement feeling itself, anti-choice advocates are planning a full-court press of further reproductive tyranny. The age of Roe hasn’t been kind to poor women or women of color. Inequities in the delivery of health-care systems make it difficult to seek the type of prenatal and postnatal care that one should. And if the state looks askance at you for not taking the right vitamins or going to the right appointments—all the while ignoring societal circumstances that prevent a person from taking care of themselves, much less their existing children and developing pregnancies—your life can be turned upside down.

A grim future

It’s a grim future for poor women and women of color in this country. They have been branded bad mothers by a movement that is uninterested in making this country a more hospitable birthing environment. They are on the verge of being forced by the state to carry pregnancies to term even if they cannot afford the expense of a child or, as is the case with more than half of people who seek abortions, cannot afford the expense of an additional child. They are being cast out and told to fend for themselves.

As access to abortion continues to shrink, the stress involved with being pregnant for some people will skyrocket. And in some cases, that will lead to pregnant people turning to the illegal use of drugs, even pregnant people who might otherwise not have. And that’s not to mention the people who will be entrapped by these laws because they took a sleeping pill. Or a Xanax.

The ordinary rules governing human rights and human decency no longer apply. We are being dragged back to a past that never existed. Abortion has always existed. And demanding control over one’s reproduction doesn’t make someone a Bad Parent or a Bad Person.

It makes them human.

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