It’s happening all over the country, and it’s bad for women everywhere. Women with untreated drug and alcohol problems have been arrested and jailed for the potential harm that their addictions may do to their fetuses. Which, as the authors of the piece point out, is pretty ridiculous, since punitive measures don’t do much to actually help these women recover — what they need is treatment and education.
Medical knowledge about addiction and dependency treatment demonstrates that patients do not, and cannot, simply stop their drug use as a result of threats of arrest or other negative consequences. This is one reason why threat-based approaches do not work to stop drug use or to protect children. Such approaches have, in fact, been shown to deter pregnant women not from using drugs but rather from seeking prenatal care and what little drug and alcohol treatment may be available to them.
Health risks to women, fetuses and children–whether arising from poverty, inadequate nutrition, exposure to alcohol, drugs or other factors–can be mitigated through prenatal and continuing medical care and counseling.
For this to be effective, however, the woman must trust her health care providers to safeguard her confidences and to stand by her while she attempts to improve her health, even if those efforts are not always successful. Transforming health care encounters into grounds for prosecution and turning health care professionals into agents of law enforcement destroys this all-important trust.
If pregant women know that their addictions will land them in jail, they aren’t going to seek out basic care. And if they do end up incarcerated, they have even bigger problems:
Kari Parsons was imprisoned specifically to protect the health of her fetus.
She was arrested when she was seven months pregnant because a drug test mandated as part of her probation for shoplifting returned a positive result. Though standard practice is to release people arrested for probation violations on their own recognizance until their later court dates, the judge in Parsons’ case sent her to jail, citing his interest in protecting the fetus’s health.
Yet three weeks later, because of the judge’s ostensible concern for the fetus, Parsons’ son was born in conditions that put both his and his mother’s health and life at risk.
Parsons gave birth to her son alone in a dirty Maryland jail cell furnished only with a toilet and a bed with no sheets. She had been in labor for several hours and had countless times pleaded for help and medical attention. The requests were denied.
The Jennifer Road Detention Center, where she was incarcerated, repeatedly ignored her cries that she was well into labor and needed to go to the hospital. Other inmates, hearing Parsons’ cries, implored guards to take her to the hospital.
Instead, guards took her out of a holding area with other inmates–who had helped to time her contractions–and put her in a cell by herself. A few hours later, Parsons gave birth completely alone, without health care or support of any kind. According to press reports, although completely healthy when he was born, Parsons’ son soon developed an infection due to the unsanitary conditions of his birth.
Only last week, a woman gave birth in a Harris County, Texas, jail cell. Another inmate who witnessed the birth told local television news reporters that despite the pregnant woman’s pleas for medical attention, guards refused to help her. She gave birth in a jail cell without medical assistance.
But it’s all about the babies, right?
Prisons throughout the United States restrain and shackle women throughout pregnancy and during labor, even though international human rights law bans restraints under these circumstances.
When Kari Parsons began to have labor pains a few days before giving birth, she was taken to a medical facility and later returned to the detention center. She was transported in handcuffs and shackles. Although international law and treaties signed by the United States prohibit the shackling of pregnant and birthing women, Amnesty International USA reports that only two states–Illinois and California–have banned the barbaric practice throughout pregnancy and childbirth.
What was that about treating women as incubators for the all-important fetus?