States Criminalize “Bad” Mothers
The Alabama Supreme Court is soon due to hear an appeal on behalf of two mothers who were convicted on felony charges of “chemical endangerment of a child,” even though there is no evidence that they ever caused harm to any of their children. These mothers are victims of a “fetal rights” campaign being pushed by reactionary crusaders as part of a wider assault on women’s rights, above all abortion. The “right to life” Liberty Counsel—the same group that helped defend Mississippi’s reactionary fetal “personhood” measure in November 2011—is among the bible-thumpers backing the state. On the other side, numerous medical and civil rights organizations have lined up in support of the appeal.
Some 60 mothers have been prosecuted under Alabama’s 2006 chemical endangerment law, which ostensibly was aimed at adults who expose children to the toxic byproducts from cooking methamphetamine. However, in some rural counties, ideologically driven prosecutors have wielded the law to go after mothers who have allegedly consumed meth or other drugs, asserting that the womb constitutes an “environment” and that the fetus is a “child.” In doing so, the capitalist state is setting the stage for its increased scrutiny of and interference into the lives of pregnant women.
One of the Alabama mothers in the appeal before the Supreme Court is Amanda Kimbrough, whose baby had Down syndrome and died minutes after being delivered prematurely by Cesarean section in 2008. The state turned this tragedy into a nightmare for the grieving family. Kimbrough tried meth once during the pregnancy, and it showed up in a drug test. Despite no proven link between her meth use and the baby’s death, Kimbrough’s two daughters were swiftly taken from her custody, and she was thrown in jail. After a two-day trial, she received the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. While released on bail pending her appeal, she was arrested for selling oxycodone to an undercover agent. As a result of this setup, Kimbrough is back behind bars.
The second case in the appeal is that of Hope Ankrom, who used marijuana to control her severe nausea during pregnancy. She knew a positive drug test at delivery would risk prosecution, so she planned to stop taking the drug six weeks before her due date. However, the baby arrived early. Although her son was born, and remains, healthy, Ankrom was convicted of chemical endangerment and was not permitted to be alone with her own children.
Although Alabama currently is a leader in criminalizing the behavior of expecting mothers, it is far from unique. The Bush regime, which believed it was doing the work of God, passed the federal “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” in 2004. Its purpose was to extend the definition of “child” to include the fetus. Some 39 states now have “fetal homicide” laws on the books in the name of protecting pregnant women from violence. But far from reducing violence, these laws have been used to target mothers. In South Carolina, one man and an estimated 300 women have been charged under its “feticide” law.
One woman being punished for her personal tragedy is Chinese immigrant Bei Bei Shuai. Her “American Dream” of acquiring an education and achieving some financial security had been cruelly shattered by the brutal realities of this racist capitalist society, leaving her desperate and depressed. In December 2010 in Indianapolis, Shuai attempted suicide by eating rat poison when 33 weeks pregnant. She survived, but her child was delivered prematurely and died three days later. In March 2011, Shuai was charged with “feticide,” and she has only just been released on bond after spending more than a year in jail. Her trial is set for December after the Court of Appeals refused to dismiss charges. If convicted, she faces 45 years to life in a prison hellhole. Drop the charges against Amanda Kimbrough, Hope Ankrom, Bei Bei Shuai and all other mothers charged under chemical endangerment and feticide laws!
For the reactionary zealots and religious fundamentalists, “fetal rights” is a means to advance a broader agenda: overturning Roe v. Wade and banning abortion. The president of the fanatical anti-abortion group Operation Rescue has gloated: “We win every time we establish the precedent that the unborn child in the womb is a unique human individual.” These anti-woman forces are also widely pushing “personhood” initiatives, which are currently under legislative debate in several states, including in Alabama. Such measures define human life as beginning at conception, effectively outlawing abortion, fertility treatments and certain methods of contraception.
The bigots treat women as if they were nothing more than “maternal hosts” for the next generation. As Emma Ketteringham, the director of legal advocacy at the National Advocates for Pregnant Women put it:
“Everyone talks about the personhood of the fetus, but what’s really at stake is the personhood of women…. It starts with cocaine, and then it’s cigarettes and alcohol. How much alcohol? And when? It’s only a matter of time until it comes to refusing a bed-rest order because you need to work and take care of your other children and then you have a miscarriage. What if you stay at a job where you’re exposed to toxic chemicals, as at a dry cleaner?”
As Marxist materialists, we reject the idealist notion—ultimately derived from religion—that a fetus is a human with a “soul.” Since a fetus and the mother are biologically united during pregnancy, all attempts to endow the fetus with rights come at the expense of those of the mother. We fight for full democratic rights and social services for women, including free abortion on demand.
For all the drivel spewed by prosecutors and legislators over the well-being of the fetus, the real threats to pregnant women and their babies are the massive inequalities built into this society that deprive millions of access to health care, not to mention jobs, decent housing and education. The real criminals are the landlords, employers, insurance companies and government at all levels—that is, the capitalists and their institutions of class rule, for whom the lives of the poor, working and black population are cheap. One result is that the rate of pre-term births in the U.S. is comparable to that of Kenya, East Timor and Honduras, while its infant mortality rate, especially for black people, is higher than those of other advanced capitalist countries.
Throwing women in jail for “endangering” their fetuses is cut of the same cloth as the demonization of black women during the “crack baby epidemic” of the 1980s and ’90s. This hysteria was manufactured to blame the ghetto poor for their own plight and flew in the face of scientific research. One 1999 article summarized research demonstrating what was already known about the relationship between poverty and the development of a young child’s brain, observing: “The inner-city child who has had no drug exposure at all is doing no better than a child labeled a ‘crack baby’.”
Today, even the conservative American Medical Association has come out in opposition to legislation that criminalizes pregnant women who use drugs. Such laws only serve to deter mothers-to-be from seeking out the crucial medical care and attention that they need. Drug use is a private matter. In the case of drug addiction, it is a medical condition, treatment for which requires access to decent health care, free of puritanical moralism. We oppose punitive mandatory drug tests on pregnant women and newborns, and other state interference into the medical practices and decisions of doctors.
We also consider drug use, prostitution and gambling as “crimes without victims” and call for their decriminalization. Anti-drug laws are used purely to regiment and repress the population. The bipartisan “war on drugs” is a racist war on black people and the poor and has granted the state greater powers to invade people’s lives and homes, of which Alabama’s chemical endangerment law is an example.
Last November, when a “personhood” measure was on the ballot in Mississippi, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made clear that he would support a Constitutional amendment to define life as starting at conception. While the GOP is forthright in its assault on women’s rights, the Democratic Party is no alternative. Obama has also pandered to religious reaction, from overruling the FDA’s approval of the “morning after” birth control pill for teens to agreeing to exclude women working at Catholic institutions from mandatory contraceptive health insurance coverage. Both capitalist parties are committed to advancing the interests of the bourgeoisie and seek to buttress the institution of the family—the main source of women’s oppression—which along with religion is a key prop to the maintenance of this system of exploitation.
As we wrote in “Utah Prosecutes Mother in Childbirth Tragedy” (WV No. 823, 2 April 2004): “A pack of wolves shows more solidarity and concern for its nursing females and young than the capitalist rulers do.” What is posed is a class-struggle fight for women’s rights and to stem the tide of capitalism’s ravages. Only a workers socialist revolution will shatter the power of the depraved capitalist class and usher in an egalitarian socialist society organized to provide for people’s basic needs.