By Soraya Chemaly
With little fanfare, authorities in the United States are being given new and unprecedented powers to subject women to surveillance, arrest, and imprisonment. Since we can't assume our civil rights are secure, it would be helpful if we had some simple rules. Rules women can follow in order to avoid jail, especially when we are pregnant. This way we can be as superhumanly, miraculously magical as possible.
So, here are ten easy-to-understand tips you can use to avoid being found deserving of punishment by local medical and law enforcement officials for experiencing things like depression, despair, addiction, abuse - even falling down - while gestating:
. Do not allow yourself to get sad or depressed or indulge in any form of existential despair. If you want to kill yourself, please display some self-control and wait to kill yourself until you've given birth.
. Don't get sick, have problems with serious fetal abnormalities or get into a personally life threatening situation.We elected people who propose and pass Let Women Die bills for a reason.
. Quit your job or run out and get a new one if it means that you might expose your fetus to potentially harmful substances. You might want to check before you get pregnant to see where your local authorities think it is ok for you to go and get a new job. For example, you probably can't work as a nurse once you conceive because there are all kinds of chemically endangering substances in the medical profession.
. Get to know your local prosecutor and understand his or her religious beliefs. Don't stop there. Ask your pharmacist, medical aids, nurses, doctors,local police officers how they feel about your choices. They probably have some strong personal feelings about what you can or cannot ingest or activities you should and should not indulge in. If you are a woman of color this an is especially important rule since personal connections might be doubly useful.
. Instantaneously upon conceiving end any addiction you may have. Even though you may have tried before,your pregnancy gives you superhuman abilities that mortals do not have. Don't be fooled into thinking that substance abuse is a health issue.
. Do not end your pregnancy by any means - even if legal and certainly not by yourself.
. Try your very best not to miscarryand if you fear that you are miscarrying, don't seek medical help.
That is the jist of it and you can stop reading now and go about your day (just don't have an ectopic pregnancy). If however, you would like more details or you think I'm joking or being alarmist you might want to grab a cup of patriarchal-government-approved-for-pregnancy herbal tea and stay a bit. Either way, you should decide what the tipping point in the society you want to live in should be: 10 women imprisoned in these ways, 100, 5000. You? Your sister? If you are a man reading this - your girlfriend? Your neighbor or coworker? A daughter or two? Women are "pro-life" collateral damage: a necessary sacrifice in that certain people's obsession with ending legal and safe abortion. Why does any woman think she will be an exception?
You might also consider the issue of who we trust to make complex ethical decisions on whose behalf. We trust men to make obvious life and death decisions not just for themselves, but for everyone at a minimum tune of $645 billion dollars a year. Should you and other women be trusted to make decisions?. If you don't trust yourself or other women then you relegate us all to second class citizenship because the only logical conclusion of returning to a dangerous and illegal abortion world is denying women their civil liberties and their equal status under the law.
What the Supreme Court of Indiana has said, what Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi and others are all saying is that women cannot be trusted, cannot be human and imperfect, especially when pregnant. They cannot make ethical decisions, cannot experience despair, they cannot have perinatal depression, they cannot be addicts, they cannot be suicidal. They cannot be sick. Can they skip their prenatal vitamins? What if they forget to put on seat belts and get in a car accident and miscarry? Or have to work where they are exposed to something toxic or dangerous?
This is women made invisible and tangential. This is women reduced to carriers. They cease to be sick, clumsy, mentally ill or physically addicted or even poor people who have no job alternatives. They simply become bad gestation environments to be policed and punished by people who won't let other people be. Once you establish these precedents the circumstances are entirely irrelevant.
Maybe you have heard of Bei Bei Shuai in Indiana. She has been charged with feticide and will go to trial. But, so what? Suicidal, she took rat poison and her baby died after an emergency Caesarian surgery. In the words of one editorial, "If she wanted to kill herself, she should have waited until after she had the baby."
Even though the Indiana Attorney General assures all of us that the precedent set by this case will not be applied to pregnant women in relationship to their own pregnancies, the Attorney General in Alabama appears to disagree - he repeatedly cites the decision in Bei Bei Shuai in support of that state's argument that the court should permit the arrest and prosecution of pregnant drug using women.
In Alabama, more than 300 women have been arrested using "chemical endangerment" laws written to protect children from hazardous environments, like meth labs. Once established these precedents of "chemical endangerment" and "prenatal substance abuse" can be used in any context, which makes women's bodies potential crime scenes when pregnant.
So, what if you are pregnant and get depressed? Do you take medication and risk imprisonment for prenatal substance abuse and chemically endangering your fetus? Or, do you not take medication, attempt suicide and risk imprisonment for murder if you fail?
No one will do this, right? That's not what the anti-abortion movement wants we've been told. They're lying. Not one anti-abortion organization has stepped forward to protest the perverted use of laws to criminalize and penalize women. There are 38 states with feticide law designed to prevent violence against women and now being used to prosecute women in a strategy to eliminate all abortions - exactly what happening in the Shuai case when the Indiana Supreme Court upheld a mid-level appellate court ruling in this case that said that laws established to penalize people who hurt pregnant women can actually be used against pregnant women themselves at the discretion of legislators and law enforcement officials.
Actually, don't even think about abortion.
Christine Taylorin Iowa couldn't. After an argument with her husband, Taylor, a mother of two, tripped and fell down a flight of stairs. She went to the hospital to make sure that her fetus was uninjured. During a conversation with a nurse, she revealed that she'd been worried about her third pregnancy and had considered both abortion and adoption. Taylor was pulled over and arrested for attempted feticide because the nurse told a doctor who thought that her fall might have been, given her prior doubts, deliberately intended to end her pregnancy. Taylor was released because feticide laws are only applicable in the third trimester and she was in her second. A couple of weeks later and she would have stayed imprisoned.
No harm done, right? She isn't in jail. She has her kids. So what if nurses and doctors get to decide when a woman is "bad" and call the police? So what if the police can arrest her, the newspapers can shame her, the state can separate her from her children. Or that now women understand that they have to be super careful about what they think and say while pregnant or that they will avoid getting medical help for fear of being targeted and arrested by doctors and law enforcement officials who personally disagree with their rights.
Which bring us to Mississippi - proud to be the first in the state to legislatively enforce compulsory pregnancy. In that state Rennie Gibbs is a 15 year old facing a life sentence for murder after a still birth. She was pregnant (why is this always a surprise in abstinence-only education states?) and miscarried. When authorities found out she was a cocaine user they charged her with "depraved-heart murder," even though there is no evidence that cocaine had anything to do with her loss of the fetus. Technically, Mississippi has not outlawed abortion, but practically they have. A legislators is on record dismissing the coat-hanger concerns of "some African Americans." These laws are overwhelmingly and disproportionately used against women of color.
The criminalization of pregnant women is something we all - men and women - need to pay serious attention to because laws are being pursued and pass that ensure that women are penalized for exercising their rights, claiming bodily integrity and assuming they have equal protection under the law. There are for all of us legal and constitutional implications, maternal, prenatal and neonatal health implications.
What has come to pass is exactly what anti-abortion activists always denied would happen: namely, that in the anti-abortion crusade to make Roe V Wade meaningless in practice, women would lose their rights and be criminalized through pregnancy. Their strategy has always been on eliminating abortion and prosecuting abortion providers to achieve it. That strategy is obsolete. Changing medical technology and options that allow women to bypass doctors in terminating unwanted pregnancies clearly mean that doctors cannot be the target of prosecution and women have to be. Just ask Jennie McCormackthe unwitting and reluctant and troubling new face of Roe V. Wade. First you say only doctors can perform abortion, then you make that virtually impossible through a flood of regulation, then women do what they need to do themselves. Are we really in benighted fashion going to consign individual women to imprisonment or death?
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about feminism, gender and culture. She contributes to The Feminist Wire, BitchFlicks and Fem2.0, RH Reality Check, Alternet and Huffington Post among others. Follow her at @schemaly.
image by CBS Television, via Wikimedia Commons