I was raised pro-life--vehemently so. I was raised to simultaneously pity and disdain women that sought abortions. I had a very clear picture of these types of women, one that was clarified by various pastors and leaders in our religious community. She was malicious, but also a victim of a system that wanted to make money off of the loss of life.
My choice-oriented shift occurred rather abruptly. The further that I got from church, the less that I cared about the topics that were once important to me. My pro-choice belief settled into, "I wouldn't want one, but I'm not every woman." I went into more detail on that shift here.
One of the truly divisive points for me is that the pro-life movement continually undercuts the ability of women to make decisions for themselves. Whether they see them as malicious or as simply being duped, the basic idea is that women can't possibly be making the best decisions for themselves, and thus it is up to society to protect them from those decisions.
You may have guessed, but I profoundly disagree with that point.
One of the trends that I see terrifyingly developing from it is a trend of criminalizing motherhood. By leveraging personhood statutes, governments manned by conservatives are able to force women into the behaviors that they deem appropriate of mothers--and criminalize the act of defying those behaviors.
It's truly shocking, but I do have two stories for you today that illustrate this path and how dangerously we are prancing down it without even stopping to consider the implications.
A Fetus In Texas
Late in August, a fetus was discovered in a bathroom at a Texas high school. The news reports referred to it as a fetus, repeatedly, which is highly divergent from how they handled the story of a newborn discarded in a trashcan during the same timeframe.
That is truly telling language, in my opinion. This is pure speculation on my part, but I am fairly sure that if this were a viable fetus, born alive, they would have been more than happy to jump on the bandwagon.
So the logical explanation, at least to me, is that this was someone that most likely miscarried. At the least, it's a significant possibility given the language used in reports.
In response, a local SWAT team swarmed the school, and people said stupid stuff. Such stupid stuff. Stuff like this:
“We’re reviewing video, talking to the teachers, trying to determine if anybody has any knowledge of any student that may have had something going on in their life, and pray,” Dallas Police Major John Lawton said.
And most notably this:
Alan Elliott of Baby Moses Dallas explained to KDFW that the mother could have avoided any criminal charges if she had taken advantage of Baby Moses laws by carrying the child to term, and then dropping it off at a safe baby site like a fire station.
“And that’s a happy ending when that happens, because the baby is safe, the mother is protected from any sort of prosecution, so it’s a win-win for both of them,” Elliot noted.
I find myself wanting to ask Mr. Elliott if he knows how many women out there would like to just be able to carry to term instead of miscarrying, but I digress.
Worst case scenario: We have a child who gave birth, alone and terrified in a bathroom stall at school. "Best" case scenario: We have a child who miscarried, alone and terrified in a bathroom stall at school.
This is a young person--a child--that needs medical care. That's the truth. Pregnancy and postpartum recovery are dangerous, even life-threatening, times in a woman's life. The risks of a complication during the first year of afterwards are astronomical. This is a young person that needs support, that needs people to come forward and say, "We care about you. You need to be able to take care of yourself. You need medical attention."
And instead, the school was overrun by police, the bathroom was treated like a crime scene, the individual in question was consistently referred to as a suspect, and the implication of criminal charges were repeatedly made.
When did it become illegal to miscarry? When did our moral sensitivities take priority over an individual's life and health?
These are the legacies left to us when we continue to perpetuate the idea, on a large cultural scale, that women are incapable of making decisions for themselves.
Merritt Tierce at RH Reality Check made the point beautifully:
Although it is possible that the teenager did not know of the pregnancy—children and adolescents who become pregnant can often ignore, deny, or misinterpret the symptoms of pregnancy, even late into gestation—until passing the fetus in the restroom stall, police and school district authorities appear to be working from the assumption that the fetus was criminally (intentionally or negligently) abandoned. After all, officials have urged anyone who knows who the teenager is—using the word “suspect”—to provide information that will assist their investigation.
Beyond the implied punitive framework, referring to the teenager as “mother” also unjustly creates a context that can only harm the adolescent, as does reporting that the “tiny body” was removed from the school and placed “carefully” in an ambulance. Major Lawton’s euphemistic and incoherent statement, too, encourages no confidence in the way involved adults will handle this teenager’s future. All students “have something going on” in their lives, and prayer is a poor substitute for an assurance that the teenager will not be prosecuted and that, more importantly, the blame for what happened most likely lies with our state government.
A Fetus in Montana
Our story from Montana is just as mind-blowing. There, a woman who is just 12 weeks pregnant has been charged with child endangerment after testing positive for drugs.
At that stage of development, the woman still has the option to legally abort. She may not even know she is pregnant--I took a while to realize (or admit) that I was pregnant with my first son myself.
So essentially, we don't even know whether this will be a child or not at this stage. She may have chosen to exercise her right to a legitimate legal medical procedure that would terminate the pregnancy. She could have chosen to abort.
And yet, you have people going on record, comfortably making comments like this:
“The reality for some of these women is the need for drugs is stronger than any maternal instinct they have,” Ravalli County deputy attorney Thorin Geist told the local outlet.
Tara Culp-Pressler, writing for ThinkProgress, clarifies the issue with that statement:
However, as several reproductive rights advocates have pointed out, Allen’s “maternal instinct” isn’t really the issue at hand. It’s unclear whether Allen knew she was pregnant in the first place, or whether she has any plans to continue the pregnancy. Abortion is, of course, still legal at 12 weeks of pregnancy. Regardless of whether or not Allen ought to be using illegal drugs, charging her with endangerment of her “unborn child” suggests that the state of Montana is endowing her fetus with its own rights.
The state of Montana has essentially decided that the only outcome for the situation is this woman continuing her pregnancy. Maternal instincts are not the issue--and I would argue that maternal instincts are kind of insulting in the first place. There's not some magical force that explains to a woman how to be a mother, and every pregnancy will be different. It will be met with different challenges and experiences and reactions. There's no cohesive guide to how a woman can react to the knowledge that she's incubating life.
The Big Picture
These are two recent stories, from this past month, but they are part of a much larger trend. Personhood statues are on the books in 36 states, with a variety of severities of imposition.
A woman in Wisconsin was subjected to jailtime after she told her OB the she had been on drugs and then she subsequently refused to take drug-based treatments, after avowing she was clean. Why did she resist treatment? Because she was afraid that the drugs would overcome her sobriety. She was afraid they would hurt her baby.
She wanted to make her own decision about her healthcare.
I know that we want to look at abortion--and in the larger scheme of things, contraception--in terms of women having the freedom to make choices, but I truly believe it's time to reframe the conversation.
These are just about the freedom to make choices. These are about trusting women to manage their own healthcare. That's the key point that's at issue with these cases.
That is the larger battle that must be fought, and it should be an absolutely key feminist argument. Women are capable of making their own decisions. They are reasonable, rational, and logical.
And in no way should they be criminalized for the pains of maternity.
That's sheer madness.