Personhood Laws

CoacaineWhile pursuing the news, New Times reporter Eric Eckholm reflected upon quandaries associated with judicial intemperance in “Case Explores Rights of Fetus Versus Mother.”  Under a Wisconsin law known as the “cocaine mom” act, child-welfare authorities can forcibly confine a pregnant women refusing treatment while using illegal drugs or alcohol “to a severe degree.”

In such a case, county sheriff officers detained and remanded Alicia Beltran on July 18 to a holding cell. Beltran’s case came to light during a prenatal checkup at 14 weeks of pregnancy she described a previous pill addiction and subsequent claim to have ending it on her own (later verified by a urine test). But a skeptical doctor and social worker accused her of endangering her unborn child simply because she refused to accept medical orders to start anti-addiction drug treatment. So to protect the infant, county officials jailed Beltran.

This is what happens when laws give officials the authority to treat fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses as if they are already completely separate from the pregnant woman,” said Lynn M. Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates.

Supporters of the Wisconsin law say it serves a useful purpose. Bonnie Ladwig, a former Republican state representative, who helped write the Wisconsin law, explained, “It’s the same as abuse of a child after it’s born. If the mother isn’t smart enough not to do drugs, we’ve got to step in.”

These types of laws and subsequent legal actions are cause for concern. Accordingly, such actions are often presented mostly as “black” or “white” (i.e., right or wrong).

For instance, Ms. Rennie Gibbs became pregnant aged 15, but lost the baby in December 2006 in stillbirth 36 weeks into pregnancy. When prosecutors discovered Gibbs had a cocaine habit Gibbs was charged with “depraved-heart murder.”  Depraved-heart murder is also known as depraved-indifference murder, an American legal term for an action that demonstrates a “callous disregard for human life” and results in death. In most states, depraved heart killings constitute second-degree murder. If convicted, Gibbs faces a mandatory life sentence.

Ironically, there’s no evidence linking cocaine use to an actual stillbirth. While it’s certainly not a good idea to be using cocaine while pregnant, the fact remains that no scientific research directly links cocaine use to fetal death in late-stage pregnancy. It’s far more likely that her poverty, young age, and probable lack of prenatal care had more to do with the stillbirth or death.

Alabama has brought approximately 40 cases under the state’s “chemical endangerment” law. Introduced in 2006, the statute was designed to protect children whose parents were cooking methamphetamine in the home and thus putting their children at risk from inhaling the fumes. But Amanda Kimbrough is one of the women who have been ensnared as a result of the law being applied in a wholly different way.

Back in 2009, Amanda Kimbrough admitted to using meth while pregnant minutes after her child died during birth. She was convicted of chemical endangerment. The law was so new at the time, it was the first time Sheffield Police ever used the statue to charge a defendant. Kimbrough is now serving ten (10) years in prison.

Targeting pregnant women under any one of a number of statutes is the wrong policy for protecting the health of future children. When a woman who is addicted to drugs becomes pregnant, she needs immediate treatment to ensure that her addiction does not lead to serious birth defects for her child. But the threat of criminal prosecution, especially for a crime as serious as murder, only drives women into the shadows.

The original questions posed in the essay “Real Solutions Never Fit” remain unanswered.

“… questions must be asked and answers must be given. Does second hand smoke harm an unborn child? If so, do we punish the mother for harming the child or punish both the mother and smoker?  Here’s another; the automobile is great for personal freedom, but exhaust fumes are toxic. Should a car owner be punished for assault if their vehicle passes a pregnant woman? If “personhood initiative” backers really want to be fair, should we not ban air fresheners, ammonia, bleach, antifreeze, drain cleaners, laundry detergent and oven cleaners? Do we jail company executives who make toxic products that local stores stock and sell and friends, family and neighbors who use such products? If a pregnant US citizen travels overseas and experiences a miscarriage in another country, how do we investigate and apply proper jurisprudence? Or do we simply perform extradition back to the country where the crime occurred? Can abortion doctors be tried for crimes against humanity?”

The logic outlined in the essay “Real Solutions Never Fit,” remains the same. However, from a prosecutorial standpoint, these types of legal actions raise the bar. One can only presume that if you’re an expectant mother with a drug habit or former drug addiction and experience a miscarriage, you could be prosecuted for murder. If we consider all unborn as children, is society legally bound to assign legal representation to an unborn child; thus pitting the unborn child against the mother? Does society really want to go down this road?

Personhood initiatives and chemical endangerment measures never really address the core problem of poverty, inadequate education and a lack social standing to properly care for children.  If we send new mothers to prison, where does that leave their children? And what are the long-term psychological, economic, and societal effects of imprisoning mothers?

What happened to love?



Categories: About Love, Do No Harm, Life Lessons, Social Justice

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