Jailing Pregnant Women for Child Abuse

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?


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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27 Responses to Jailing Pregnant Women for Child Abuse

  1. julie says:

    thanks for posting our article, Jill, and for highlighting how jailing pregnant woman does nothing to protect fetal and maternal health.

  2. Tanya says:

    This is absolutely horrible. I can’t believe that any judge could justify sending a woman to give birth in a jail.

  3. emjaybee says:

    You know, I think it’s important to connect this attitude with how our system increasingly treats every pregnant and laboring woman as someone with almost no rights to make her own medical decisions. Insurance agencies and hospital rules are making it harder and harder for women to labor as they wish without medical interventions…or else they have to constantly fight off hospital staff and their own OBs who are trying to pressure them into c-sections. Which is why we have much higher c/s rates than comparable countries. Even without a shackle, a woman may have to fight for the right to stand, walk, refuse drugs, labor at her own pace, and move around during labor in a hospital.

    I personally know of couples who have been told their insurance will not cover the birth if they don’t follow the rules (which is complete bs). And if they try homebirth or vaginal birth after c/sec, they will often be threatened with stories of dead babies and internal hemorrhages, despite numerous studies which have proved those risks to be much smaller than the risks accompanying repeated surgeries and inductions.

    It’s not about babies (who are after all affected by too early birth, c/sec and drugs in labor), it’s just a convenient way of punishing women who seek control of their own bodies. And since 80% of women will have children at some point (I believe that’s right) it affects a huge number of us.

  4. KnifeGhost says:

    Every time I hear somebody make the case on this, it’s all I can do to keep from freaking out and making a totally insane slippery-slope argument about eugenics.

    Cause, well, FUCK.

  5. Tuomas says:

    What was that about treating women as incubators for the all-important fetus?

    Indeed, what was it? There is a good case to be made for abolishing prison sentences for all (otherwise non-criminal) drug users, but it seems that this whole article capitalizes on the natural human tendency to be horrified about bad treatment to a pregnant woman, you know, because of the baby.

    If fetus is not a person, then women can hardly use the hostage situation their pregnancy creates as a get out of the jail card.

  6. evil_fizz says:

    There is a good case to be made for abolishing prison sentences for all (otherwise non-criminal) drug users, but it seems that this whole article capitalizes on the natural human tendency to be horrified about bad treatment to a pregnant woman, you know, because of the baby.

    Except that “because of the baby!” has been used to justify the imprisonment of women for perfectly legal activities (drinking alcohol), putting fetuses in “protective custody” and preventing women from leaving their jurisdiction because the putative father gained visitation rights to the women’s abdomen.

    I won’t pretend that fetal health and well-being shouldn’t be cause for concern. But it’s mostly used to subjugate the rights of women in the name of fetal protection.

  7. evil_fizz says:

    Actually, re-reading my previous comment, I believe Toumas meant something else.

    If the fetus is not a person, then what justifies needing to protect it by throwing her in jail in the first place?

  8. Natalia says:

    A friend of mine is a case-worker for at-risk people in our area, and she recently had to take care of a pregnant woman who was on crack. The woman in question already had her three other children taken away from her and placed to live with their grandparents, and she was desperately trying to keep the fourth.

    My friend drove her to a clinic and checked her in.

    The woman was ill. She was no monster. She had severe psychological issues, a history of abusive boyfriends/husbands, you name her. I can’t imagine how throwing her in jail would have helped anything. At least now she’s getting the help she needs.

  9. Sailorman says:

    Things like this, and like laws that provide for murder charges when one (for example) kills a theoretically-viable fetus in the womb, are merely opportunities to chip away at abortion rights.

    evil_fizz got it right: If it makes sense to put a mother in prison to protect her unborn fetus*, to avoid cognitive dissonance we have to assume the fetus is “worth more”. And if the fetus is worth more, it’s presumably because it’s “more human”… which is, at its core, an argument that ultimately attacks the prochoice position.

    Tuomas, the problem with your argument is obvious; perhaps you are misreading the post? These women would not ordinarily be put in jail. They are not using their pregnancy as a “get out of jail free” card. They are being put in jail because they are pregnant. It is a mechanism at complete odds with the concept that a fetus, prior to birth, is not a human and it not “owned” by anyone other than the mother.

    I am not so blind that I think prenatal alcohol and drug ise are good things. Obvisouly, we would ALL be better off–mothers, feti, and society–if women who were pregnant didn’t use alcohol and drugs during pregnancy.

    But so long as I view the fetus as nonhuman until birth–which I do–I think this is ludicrous. We would not prosecute a woman for murder who selfaborted at 8 months. Why, then would we jail her for “harming a fetus”? If she can KILL it, surely she can do pretty much anything else.

    *ignoring for a moment that it doesn’t seem to work.

  10. Jill says:

    Indeed, what was it? There is a good case to be made for abolishing prison sentences for all (otherwise non-criminal) drug users, but it seems that this whole article capitalizes on the natural human tendency to be horrified about bad treatment to a pregnant woman, you know, because of the baby.

    If fetus is not a person, then women can hardly use the hostage situation their pregnancy creates as a get out of the jail card.

    Tuomas-

    She wouldn’t have been in jail in the first place had she not been pregnant. She was incarcerated for “child abuse” — for abusing a child who hadn’t yet been born.

    Further, even for inmates who are in jail for other reasons, pregancy is a health issue and should be treated as such. If a woman goes into labor while in jail, she needs treatment — just like if her appendix burst, or if she had some other medical emergency. While she’s pregnant she needs care — just like if she had cancer or diabetes or another health issue.

  11. Ursula L says:

    What an idiot (the judge.) You’d think someone who works in the criminal justice system would know that the prisons are awash in drugs, and that she could get any drug she wanted there.

    I can see why society would allow abortions but not drug abuse during pregnacy. The social cost of an abortion is quite low. Physically and economically, it affects the woman, the fetus if you count it, and no one else. The social cost of a ill newborn born to parents who can’t care for or support it is quite high. Neonatial care, foster care, medical care for ongoing health problems, etc. A cost that affects everyone, since it gets paid by taxes or charity.

    But prevention of neonatal problems doesn’t happen when you lock someone in a prison with an unlimited supply of drugs and no medical care. The NYC TB control program comes to mind, offering incentives such as grocery store gift cards or bus passes for women who come in for weekly checkups and a supply of vitamin pills. Or government sponsored trips to residental health spas, where one could get solid nutrition, prenatial care, etc. Something that provides incentives and is actually addressing the problem at hand.

  12. zuzu says:

    Except that “because of the baby!” has been used to justify the imprisonment of women for perfectly legal activities (drinking alcohol), putting fetuses in “protective custody” and preventing women from leaving their jurisdiction because the putative father gained visitation rights to the women’s abdomen.

    Not to mention that woman in Washington State who was refused a divorce from her long-incarcerated husband because she was pregnant. Never mind that it was another man’s baby and she wanted the divorce to marry him.

  13. JDVR says:

    The article mentions at the end that Maryland’s highest court recently held that drug use by a pregnant woman cannot form the basis of a conviction for reckless endangerment of the eventually-born child. For anyone curious, here’s the opinion:

    http://www.courts.state.md.us/opinions/coa/2006/91a05.pdf

    I agree, though, that “[s]uch a ruling . . . should not have been necessary to persuade prosecutors and other state officials that arresting and imprisoning women is no way to protect pregnant women and their children.”

  14. ginmar says:

    This is what happens when you separate the woman from her body; she becomes the enemy of the all-important fetus.

  15. Mamid says:

    I am currently pregnant. I am days from delivery. I don’t do drugs. I rarely drink normally.

    Yet, back in May, I was accused of child abuse because I didn’t have a doctor.

    Nevermind all the phone calls and letters I’ve made to try to find me a doctor. Nope. I, a pregnant mother of 2 already, was a child abuser simply because I couldn’t find a doctor. We have the insurance to cover a doctor or midwife, but in a town of over 70,000 with a shortage of doctors, trying to find one has been… agonizing.

    But I’m a child abuser for not having adequate care. What are they going to do? Throw me in jail? Nope. They’ll just sic child protective services on my family.

    Makes me, a rational woman, not want to have anything to do with the medical model of care. Wish me luck on an easy birth.

  16. Nomie says:

    Good luck and best wishes for you and your baby, Mamid.

  17. Nanette says:

    I’m glad this issue – and hopefully the related one of drug testing pregnant women who go to hospitals for care or delivery and, in some cases, taking their newborns if they test positive – is getting notice.

    What goes on in the lives of poorer women often seems to fly under the radar, but the laws and policies, once on the books, will eventually begin to affect the lives of all women (who feel they should have a say in their own reproductive and health matters).

    About this story itself, of course if they were really concerned about either the women or the fetus there would be health centers/homes set up all around to treat the addictions and other health problems of the mother, as well as help ensure that there was a good chance of a safe birth, healthy weight baby and followup and support afterwards.

    I know, I know… dream on ;)

  18. Rhiannon says:

    Sh*t.. this pisses me off! Next thing you know they’ll be jailing “pre-pregnant” women for not getting enough Folic Acid in their diets!!! Cause it could harm *potential* feti! *disgusted*

    What a bunch of f***ing bullsh*t!!!

  19. Raging Moderate says:

    A friend of mine is a case-worker for at-risk people in our area, and she recently had to take care of a pregnant woman who was on crack. The woman in question already had her three other children taken away from her and placed to live with their grandparents, and she was desperately trying to keep the fourth.

    I agree that Ms. Parsons was treated horribly. But what do we do about women like the one in Natalia’s comment if she refuses to get drug treatment and continues to have babies she is unable to care for?

  20. midwestern transport says:

    mamid, i wish you well. that sounds awful.

    as does this article. jesus.

  21. emjaybee says:

    Mamid, all the best to you! If you don’t have someone already…Have you tried finding a direct-entry midwife? CPMs may not be covered by your insurance, but can help you if you homebirth…and doulas can be of help in a hospital setting also. Both will often work with you on payment options (such as paying in installments).

    Birth With Love has a list of midwives willing to travel, since you don’t say where you are
    http://www.birthwithlove.com/Search/Midwives_Will_Travel.aspx

    And if you call your local La Leche League, any doula organizations, or email the Midwives Alliance of North America http://www.mana.org/memberlist.html about members that are in your area. All of these might help you find someone!

    (feel free to email me for more, I don’t want to take over the thread)

  22. I think it is at least POSSIBLE that the judge who sent the 7 month pregnant woman to jail, may have had “good intentions” (to protect the health of both mother and child…I can imagine my uncle or grandfather ignorantly making such a ruling). Obviously , the jail and the guards did NOT.
    I am going to send him a a letter telling him what his ruling did to the woman and her all-important fetus. Just to let him know how pissed off I am, and how he should NEVER make that ruling again. If he has to make a ruling at ALL, it should be to send a woman in such circumstances to a HOSPITAL, not a JAIL.

    Furthermore, WTF is wrong with these GUARDS? I suppose a lot of bona fide sadists go in for the career of “jailer”, but making a woman give birth unassissted in a filthy cell sounds totally illegal to ME. Could there be a better definition of denying medical care?

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  24. kate says:

    The incidence of children born with FAS is a huge social problem, but one that is the result of a culture steeped in alcohol consumption as harmless. That most of the public refuses to fund alcohol and drug treatment centers, instead referring to alcoholism as a failure of ‘self control’, it is little surprise that jail is seen as the just means to enforce control that the woman is seen to lack.

    If alcoholism and drug addiction were seen as diseases, then I’d posit that the liklihood of seeing an addicted mother thrown in jail to be much lower. Absolutely, a hospital or halfway house environment would be much more appropriate.

    Now, the issue of the women’s treatment in jail, well yes that’s another thing. Jails and prisons are indeed magnets for people with a sadistic bent and if you weren’t upon starting your career there, you probably will be once you are in it for awhile. It is a sick environment to be a part of.

    Also, pregnant women jailed or incarcerated are victims of the same problem that all people in correctional institutions face; they are dehumanized and society allows and sees to it that they are treated ‘like the dogs they are’. Social impact be damned.

    I hope the woman in the story sues hard and wins big. Also, might I add that if she was a chronic drinker, by seven months, the major damage to the fetus has already occurred. Why the concern so late? Where were people prior?

    I’ve seen drunk pregnant woman many times and the children that result. A few harsh examples such as that don’t convince me that society gives a rat’s ass about alcohol or drug addiction among the poor or their feti. Its just another way to punish ‘bad’ women for being ‘bad’. Period.

  25. Tuomas says:

    Hmm, I may have misread the intent.

  26. bmc90 says:

    Raging, step ONE is to offer such women and her likely sexual partners access to free, safe, and legal contraception, up to and including sterilization. Until all the volunatry means of preventing pregnancy are available to all, I don’t really want to hear about punative solutions directed at people whose lives are obviously already a big mess. One of the reasons anti-contraception and abortion movements are so horrid is because when you take away the agency of people who WOULD either use birth control, get sterilized or have an abortion if they could afford it and did not have to wade through protesters or answer demeaning questions to get it, you are much more likely to run into Malthusian symptoms down the road, which is what caused China to implement one family one child (and along with it forced abortions and sterilizations). Not good stuff. The pendulum can swing very far in the other direction very fast when overcrowding and global warming seriously compromise the water supply, food, available housing and the like.

  27. Raging Moderate says:

    Raging, step ONE is to offer such women and her likely sexual partners access to free, safe, and legal contraception, up to and including sterilization.

    Sounds like a great idea. While I think this would greatly reduce the number of women like the one Natalia described above, I don’t think it would solve the problem entirely. Even if these measures were available, I’m sure there would still be those who wouldn’t use them (drug addicts don’t make great decisions, after all). What do we do about them?

    I don’t advocate jailing them, but when I see a bad idea, my instincts are to come up with a better idea, not just denounce the bad one.

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