A Woman’s Choice

By: Jessica Petitt

Photo Courtesy of Redbloggy.com.

Photo Courtesy of Redbloggy.com.

It is unquestionably apparent to young girls, and women alike, that one of the most influential persons of this generation is Beyoncè. She remains one of the many females who advocate for women’s equal rights with empowering songs that allow her to be defined as a true feminist. According to Beyoncè, feminism is a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. In today’s society, many believe that to be considered true feminist a person must be a pro-choice advocate for women and their reproductive rights. According to the Feminist Women’s Health Center, pro-choice is defined as a way to support self-determination, to make decisions free from judgment, and the responsibility to your self with the freedom to decide to take control of your own life process. Discussions concerning abortions and pro-choice advocates have surfaced since the monumental Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, 93 S.Ct. 705 (1971).

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court legalized abortions for the first three months of a woman’s pregnancy. According to the Supreme Court, the ability for women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives. Ever since this ruling, states have attempted to restrict women’s reproductive rights even further. This has become apparent with a newly enacted law in Tennessee criminalizing women who use narcotics while pregnant. [1] Even more recently, on March 31, 2015, North Carolina also proposed a bill that would allow pregnant women’s rights to be restricted. Specifically, North Carolina moms could soon face jail time for drug addictions that occur while pregnant, just as they now do in Tennessee. For many lawmakers, the big issue is the daunting task of balancing a woman’s right to bodily integrity with society’s interest in ensuring healthy pregnancies, and whether punitive approaches will foster–or hinder– healthy outcomes for women and children.

Bill Specifics

According to North Carolina General Statutes § 14-34.11, under this bill a woman may be prosecuted for assault for the illegal use of a narcotic drug, while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by narcotic drug and the addiction is a result of her illegal narcotic use.[2] The law allows for an affirmative defense if the woman actively enrolls in an addiction recovery program before the child is born, remains in the program after delivery, and successfully completes the program, regardless of whether the child is born addicted to or harmed by the controlled substance. If this legislation is passed, it becomes effective December 1, 2015, and applies to offenses committed on or after that date. This bill calls into question the widely debated discussion of whether drug addictions are to be defined as health issues or criminal acts.

Health Issues vs. Criminal Acts

As a result of these new drug policies, many feminist activists believe women’s civil and human rights are under attack. To many, it seems as if legislators are now combining health issues with criminal issues. There tends to be a consensus in the medical community that addiction is a public health issue, and that treating drug use in pregnancy as a crime undermines the health of both women and children. According to the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, the punishment of pregnant women is typically targeted at vulnerable, low-income, and women of color who are all among those with the least access to healthcare or legal defense.

Photo Courtesy of Babble.com.

Photo Courtesy of Babble.com.

Dangers in the Unknown Information

Lynn Shoemaker, advocacy and issues director for Women AdvaNCe, a nonpartisan institute that advocates for women, expressed concerns that the bill would have a chilling effect on women seeking prenatal care. The concern is that women who are criminalized for their drug use will be unable to provide for their families or children if they are sitting in jail. Furthermore, many critics of the bill are concerned that this recent legislation will be a gateway for other legislation that could further impact the healthcare of women, such as regulating any medications that affect the birth of a child or the development of the fetus.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, screening for substance abuse is part of complete obstetric care and should be done in partnership with pregnant women. All women should be asked about their use of alcohol and drugs, including prescription opioids and other medications used for nonmedical reasons. If women now face the issue of being criminalized for their actions, there is a concern that they will likely hide the fact that they are using prescriptions and the mother, along with the fetus, will not receive the appropriate care that is needed. Leading medical and public health groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association of the March of Dimes, all oppose punitive responses, such as the proposed criminalizing statutes, for prenatal drug use.

Slippery Slope

The question remains just how far this type of legislation will go. Advocates of reproductive rights are concerned about the law’s potential to interfere with a pregnant woman’s autonomy. There is much at stake for the reproductive rights community in its ongoing fight to protect the bodily integrity of a pregnant woman in the precarious situation of drug use. However, many reproductive rights activists state that the community has an equally strong interest, even an obligation, to work toward ensuring healthy pregnancy outcomes for these women. Is this what the Supreme Court intended to happen with reproductive rights after Roe v. Wade? When is the line crossed?

[1] Tenn. Code Ann. §§39-13-107, 2010.

[2] N.C.G.S. § 14-34.11 (2015).

 

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