Feeding the Crocodiles

Scott Lemieux, among many many other bloggers, has written reams about the inconsistent way in which pro-lifers equate fetuses with babies. Another example jumped out at me from this pandagon thread about the trend towards equating “fetal abuse,” the mistreatment of your pregnant body, with child abuse, the mistreatment of a child.

The reasoning behind the idea of fetal abuse is chilling, since the pregnant woman is reduced to a pregnant body. Worse than that, really, since a pregnant body can still be said to exist for its own sake and to deserve protection of its own health. This new construction of pregnancy turns it into something that happens only to the fetus. A woman’s body is nothing but a means to influence the fetus, and her life on every level is subsumed. If the medical needs of the pregnant body conflict with the medical needs of the fetus, she loses.

The analogy was repeated in various forms throughout the thread. Ingesting controlled or harmful substances during pregnancy is compared to feeding your child drugs:

OK. Then step up to the responsibility, and when one of your sisters fries her baby with smack, treat her the same way you’d treat a man who fries a baby with smack.

Killing someone or recklessly endangering someone’s life:

That being said, you are just dead wrong on this issue. If a woman endangers the life of her baby (yes, I think it’s a baby before it’s born) and it dies (pre or post birth) as a result of her actions such as excessive drinking, drug use, etc. she should be prosecuted for manslaughter.

Feeding the baby to wild animals and/or paparazzi:

This does nothing to diminish a woman’s right to anything. If you choose to have a baby, you are obligated to protect that baby to the best of your ability. Look at the way everyone ranted and raved when Steve Irwin held his baby while feeding a crocodile. Hey, it’s his baby but he can do what he wants right? Similarly Michael Jackson was castigated for holding his child over the balcony of a hotel. Lots of people are prosecuted all the time for child endangerment. Killing your child even if it was through actions done before it actually passed through the birth canal should be punishable by law just as if you killed it through neglect after it was born.

If you fail to feed your child adequately, you are guilty of child abuse. If you fail to seek medical treatment for your child when your child is sick, you are guilty of child abuse. If you hurt your child, you are guilty of child abuse. If you do not supervise your child such that your child’s life is in danger, you are guilty of child abuse. When the crime is not child abuse but “fetal abuse,” however, none of the criminalized acts are things done to the fetus. They are things that the woman does to herself. If you feed yourself drugs, you are feeding drugs to a child. If you drink, you are forcing alcohol on a child.

So a pregnant woman who leaned out too far over a balcony would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who exposed herself to injury–say by working with wild animals–would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who didn’t eat well or ate too little or failed to take care of her body in any number of other ways would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who failed to seek pre-natal care would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who did not seek medical treatment for any health problem would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. A pregnant woman who refused any medical treatment or advice that might save her health or maintain her healthy pregnancy would be guilty of endangering her child’s life. She would be a criminal if she failed to safeguard her own body, and liable for any harm that might translate to her child, because there’s no difference between her body and the body belonging to her child.

And yet, the commenters on the pandagon thread continually resisted any claim that they were in fact interested in treating pregnant women as criminals if they failed to take adequate care of their fetuses. It makes perfect sense to see a pregnant woman with a drug habit as no different from a woman who feeds drugs to a child, but it’s ridiculous to say that a pregnant woman who fails to take care of herself is similar to a woman who neglects her child’s basic needs. No one–no one!–wants to curtail the liberties of pregnant women! No one is arguing that they should bear a burden for abuse and neglect of the future child comparable to the one parents bear for the sake of their current children. Apparently, so long as you aren’t a heroin addict, you’re a good mommy. This is obviously not a discussion of child abuse.

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31 comments for “Feeding the Crocodiles

  1. Cecily
    January 30, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    I am reminded of the Angela Carder case. That’s the sort of thing that results from this thinking.

  2. Becky
    January 30, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    It seems to be that if you take this far enough, my IUD is endangering a child a month.

  3. Esme
    January 30, 2007 at 2:38 pm

    So wait, would Republicans voting against legislation for prenatal care be endangering all those fetuses and be liable for the malnourishment of those kids? Would the pharmacist who refused to fill a prescription for prenatal vitamins because they were prescribed by planned parenthood be liable?

    I’m starting to like this idea actually.

  4. January 30, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    In Alberta there’s a rather insidious little piece of legislation in place that allows a child to sue their parents for injuries sustained ‘in utero’. It was put in place specifically for a family where the mother was pregnant when involved in an automotive accident that left the child severely injured after birth.

    Ostensibly, the law exists to force insurers to pay compensation to the injured child, but it has other implications as well.

    The potential for a very dangerous path of reasoning to be pursued is quite real.

  5. PhoenixRising
    January 30, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Oh yes, it’s dangerous, but that’s no reason not to have some fun with the notion that mothers are criminally liable for mistreating their little snowflakes.

    For example, let’s take that shoe off the drug-addict’s foot and try it on a fully-insured, wealthy foot and see if it still fits: The records in this file clearly show that your fertility specialist explained that if you have more than 3 babies from the same gestation, you’re virtually guaranteed a developmental difficulty at the least and a mental or physical disability at worst.

    Selfish and irresponsible? Or lock her up and throw away the key? Oh, the places you’ll go, once you concede that a fetus is a person with rights apart from its mother’s…

  6. prairielily
    January 30, 2007 at 3:48 pm

    And of course, PheonixRising, if that woman chooses to reduce the number of fetuses to three, she is guilty as well. What is that woman to do?

  7. January 30, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    They’re forgetting, or conveniently ignoring, the fact that the only reason any of this stuff might hurt the fetus is because the fetus is getting LIFE from its mother at the same time—drugs enter the fetus’s system along with the oxygen and nutrients in the blood she delivers to it, injury-causing force is transmitted through the body that protects it, malnutrition makes its presence known, having affected the mother already. These things are all enabled by that connection which allows the fetus to live and develop, and to the fetal-abuse yahoos I say: count your blessings.

    That connection offers the fetus everything: oxygen, nutrients, waste removal, even warmth, all provided by the woman, with nothing offered in return; the fetus doesn’t help her do a damned thing, it’s just another drain on the system. It gets this access completely free—sounds like a pretty good deal, right? There’s just one caveat, one side effect: that body that provides all this is does not belong to the fetus, and is not at the fetus’s sole disposal—it belongs to the woman whose consciousness inhabits it, who is a living, feeling, breathing, free human being with a life of her own and an overriding claim on the use of that body.

    It’s hers, first and foremost. The fetus is a freeloader, doing nothing but profiting from that connection, from her body, doing nothing to entitle it to any benefits that might come from from obligating the woman to put it first, as if it had more rights to her body than she did. It profits from that connection, it can deal with ALL of the consequences of that connection, both good and bad. And if anybody is of the belief that the good that comes to any particular fetus through that connection is outweighed by the bad stuff or the risk, they are welcome to offer the woman an abortion.

    People keep saying the life of a fetus is worth something—well where does that life come from, during pregnancy? From the woman whose body it lives in, that’s where, and if they’re going to uphold its value then they can damned well give credit where credit is due, rather than this hostile bleating about the harm some women might accidentally do to the fetuses inside them without the slightest credit to the fact that she’s doing something for the fetus which outweighs every last thing she could possibly do to it—by their own logic—giving it life, and if they’re so certain that the mother is bad for the fetus, then let’s see how good it is for the fetus if she removes herself from contact with it completely.

    In short: this is like some other person not only tapping into your cable but telling you what channel to turn it to so he can watch what he wants.

  8. car
    January 30, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Dang, Becky, I hadn’t thought of that. How many consecutive life terms am I looking at now? (counts to self…..)

  9. ianovich
    January 30, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    Esme, I was thinking along the same lines as you. From which country are these people who think that not seeking out prenatal care would be a criminal act on the part of a pregnant woman? I guess they hadn’t heard the latest from those fiscal conservatives at the Cato institute: “The tax code also encourages Americans to consume more health care than they otherwise would. Honestly, I love the “big tent” GOP, assuming that is a metaphor for a circus rather than an actual political party.

  10. hp
    January 30, 2007 at 5:41 pm

    From which country are these people who think that not seeking out prenatal care would be a criminal act on the part of a pregnant woman?


    Our medical plan, through my husband’s company, changed to a catastrophe-only plan with this year. They’ll “cover” pregnancy, as long as you follow their maternity plan (which requires you to undergo pretty extensive prenatal care), once costs exceed a number that’s just above what all my prenatal+delivery+infant care cost. I found it interesting that the number you have to reach is just above what was the cost of a slightly high-risk pregnancy (GD, slight blood pressure problems). So, you have to follow all these rules and pay for following all these rules, just in case terrible things happen, and then they may cover the terrible things.

  11. January 30, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    Kyra, that was beautifully said.

  12. Robert M.
    January 30, 2007 at 5:53 pm

    At the risk of opening myself up to attack, I’d like to make a small point.

    There’s no workable universal rule that resolves a fetus from the pregnant woman, in such a way that laws protecting the fetus don’t impinge upon the liberty of the woman. I believe, quite firmly, that the woman’s liberty is of greater moral weight than the well-being of the fetus; in many well-meaning and otherwise liberal people, however, all it takes is a little bit of increased weight on the “well-being of the fetus” side of that equation for the balance to tip in the other direction.

    Among those well-meaning people is my wife, who’s a medical student, and with whom I’ve had a lot of long discussions about the ramifications of her personal ethics on her medical responsibilities. She’s told me that she would refuse to perform an abortion, if asked (and she hasn’t been required to learn how, although she may be when she reaches residency); she also believes that parental notification is a good thing, and that activities like smoking, drinking, and drug use in pregnant women should be punishable by law.

    The articles, both here and at Pandagon, have been concise and well-written arguments for the rights of the pregnant woman. Some of the comments have strayed into straw-man territory, though, and demonizing our opponents doesn’t help. Many of them are natural allies, genuinely concerned about the safety and quality of human life, and education and awareness are the keys to winning them over to the right side of this debate.

  13. Tricia(freya)
    January 30, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    I pray like hell (and I’m Wiccan), that your wife doesn’t become an OB/GYN — because doctors who think their pesonal beliefs trump their patients bodily autonomy need to stick with dermatology or podiatry where they can’t harm anyone.

  14. Tricia(freya)
    January 30, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    OK that was harsh — and my first gut reaction. But seriously if her personal beliefs are so strong that she will compromise patient care and safety for them (I mean any personal beliefs, not just ones I don’t agree with).

    Then she’s got a lot of thinking to do.

  15. Esme
    January 30, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    I still support this legislation. I mean, really, we’ve been denying zygotes, embryos, and fetuses rights for far too long. And as we all know, with rights come responsibilities. We need to pass some legislation soon so we can start building teeny tiny fetus jails for fetuses whose presence inside their mothers causes harm to them. Yes your honor, that’s the fetus that assaulted me.

  16. ellenbrenna
    January 30, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    Yes there is a great concern for child welfare but the solution to the problem is not prosecution it is prenatal care and drug treatment.

  17. Dianne
    January 30, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    Robert M: Tricia’s answer was harsh, but essentially correct. If your wife goes into essentially any field except ob/gyn and maybe family practice, she will probably never be asked to perform an abortion. Just as she couldn’t be a hematologist if she were a Jehovah’s witness and refused to give blood products, she can’t be an OB if she refuses to perform one of the field’s basic procedures. But she should have no problem if she goes into another branch of medicine.

  18. January 30, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Robert, I think we all support the rights of people to opt out of professionals which require them to violate their own moral codes. If your wife decides to go into dermatology or neurosurgery or something else which has nothing to do with abortion, then she shouldn’t have to perform abortions. And I can pretty much guarantee that she won’t be required to, even during residency — most abortions aren’t performed in hospitals anyway, and the very few residency programs that do offer abortion training usually allow doctors to opt out.

    However, it’s worth pointing out that abortion training isn’t just about abortion — it’s also about knowing how to help pregnant women who have serious complications. If the fetus dies in utero, it needs to be removed, or the pregnant woman can die. How do you remove it? Using the same procedures as you use for abortion. If doctors don’t receive that training and are in a field where it might be necessary to have those skills, it can be problematic.

  19. January 30, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    In response to piny’s excellent post, I’ll also point out that simply upon becoming pregnant, a woman loses many of her rights already. For example, a woman’s right to have her life wishes carried out is essentially terminated upon pregnancy in many states. That is, if a woman makes it clear in her living will that she does not want to be kept artificially alive and that she doesn’t want to be on life support, and she wants this even if she’s pregnant, her wishes are null and void in several states — according to state law, if she is pregnant, she must be kept alive against her wishes until she gives birth, or the fetus is removed.

    Just one more example of how pregnant women are routinely stripped of the rights that many of the rest of us enjoy.

  20. January 30, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Among those well-meaning people is my wife, who’s a medical student, and with whom I’ve had a lot of long discussions about the ramifications of her personal ethics on her medical responsibilities. She’s told me that she would refuse to perform an abortion, if asked (and she hasn’t been required to learn how, although she may be when she reaches residency); she also believes that parental notification is a good thing, and that activities like smoking, drinking, and drug use in pregnant women should be punishable by law.

    Robert, I respect your wife’s right to decline to perform abortions (which, Jill is right, she will not be forced to do. But I hope that she too is reading these posts and threads (here, at Pandagon, and at other blogs, my own included, that write about this issue). The irony is that it’s often doctors who have the most immediate and most punitive responses to pregnant women who battle drug addictions. Which makes sense, since they see sick babies and children more often than most of us do. But my guess is that most doctors, when presented with all the facts, would at the very least think more critically about their positions.

    I’m talking about facts like this:
    * not a single peer-reviewed study has been able to tie a pregnant woman’s drug use to a specific set of fetal harms. In fact, one peer reviewed study showed that the symptoms that have been linked to so-called “crack babies” are also found in babies that have not been drug exposed but who are from the same socio-economic group and similar neighborhoods. Many doctors believe that fetal health problems that have been attributed to drug use are actually due to poverty, lack of proper nutrition, and lack of prenatal care.

    * To the extent that there is concern that drug exposure can harm fetuses, men’s drug use has been shown to be just as risky to fetal health. Men who use cocaine and other drugs have decreased sperm motility and often malformed sperm. Men also often smoke cigarettes, crack, and marijuana around their pregnant partners. Yet these men are never prosecuted.

    * No one is saying that it’s good for pregnant women – or anyone for that matter – to use drugs with any frequency. But throwing women in jail doesn’t solve the problem. It just leaves children in foster care and forces women to give birth in unsanitary conditions. If what we’re really concerned about is fetal and child health, we should be investing in community-based treatment programs that allow pregnant women and women with families and that are either state supported (but not necessarily faith based) or accept medicaid. Those programs are virtually nonexistent right now. There is not a single one within 100 miles of Amarillo, TX, for example.

    Ok, this comment has gotten long enough that it could be its own post, but you get my point. I respect your wife’s opinion that women using drugs during their pregnancy is something we should work to prevent. But I disagree that a punitive response is effective or humane. And I’ll go one step further – it’s unconstitutional.

    Maybe if we as a culture stop thinking so much about punishing people, we might actually effect some positive change.

  21. Sniper
    January 30, 2007 at 11:31 pm

    OK that was harsh — and my first gut reaction.

    I don’t think so. How can you trust a doctor who doesn’t consider you – the paying customer, the fully developed human – to be the real patient?

  22. Tricia(freya)
    January 31, 2007 at 12:23 am

    Yeah, trust. It’s hard enough to trust someone who you see (maybe) 15-30 minutes once a year with life-changing decisions — much less when they hand you a list of reasons they’ll let you die (or report you to the authorities) when you walk in the door the first time… (Oh wait, they don’t even have to tell you until it’s too late, do they?)

    Because they have magic powers that let them immediately assess your life and make decisions “for your own good” that will obviously be better than any decisions you can make for yourself.

    All snark aside, people more often than not have limited choices in healthcare providers (have you tried to find a single-woman friendly OB/GYN in a red state lately?) and a (future) doctor who’s never even met me, has already decided that her ideology is more important than my life. It’s terrifying.

  23. January 31, 2007 at 7:50 am

    I’ve been following the Pandagon thread and haven’t really felt qualified to comment until I’d sorted out my feelings. I think, like most people, I feel that a pregnant woman who intends to carry to term has a moral duty take care of her foetus’s welfare (and every woman I know with a wanted pregnancy has been absolutely on top of this without any need for the law to tell her what to do), but god knows I don’t want this to be enshrined in law. The law is a blunt instrument when it comes to encouraging people to behave in a certain way, and I’m sure that it’s not the right one to use in this case. It’s also dangerous, in that it defines a woman in the state of pregnancy as somehow different in her personhood.

    Creating laws against harming the foetus would be to punish women who are poor, who suffer from addiction, who have little access to pre-natal healthcare. The best thing we could for their children would be to improve the health of these women by giving them the tools to decide if and when they want to become (or stay) pregnant and the access to services and help that will keep them safe and healthy without imposing anything on them – whether they’re pregnant or not. Making a pregnant woman a sort of demi-person with limited rights which she shares with the foetus she is carrying is not the solution.

    As a woman who suffers from endometriosis, I know that doctors can believe they know what’s best for me when they in fact know a lot less about the condition than I do and sometimes come out with old, discredited myths (for example, that having a baby will “cure” endometriosis – this is just not true) or are far too ready to go to extreme surgical options like hysterectomy and won’t listen to what I as the patient want. Fortunately most of my docs have been great and have worked with me rather than handed down a treatment plan from on on high. However, there are still some doctors with a god complex out there who haven’t absorbed the basic meaning of patient rights – whether or not it comes from a well-meaning place.

  24. Robert M.
    January 31, 2007 at 10:17 am

    Wow, I didn’t mean to derail the thread…

    My wife is interested in pediatrics and internal medicine, and wants to go into family practice. The good news is that her position on abortion does come from desire to protect those under her care, and doesn’t extend to thinking it should be illegal, or to actively preventing a patient from getting an abortion.

    Mom, who’s a life-long feminist, has also been working on her, and she’s coming around to the idea that a respect for life, not to mention an oath to do no harm, is much less black-and-white than she’s previously considered. My wife’s clinical experiences are having a positive effect, as well.

    The larger point, though, is sort of illustrated by some of the reactions to my comment. She’s not a bad person, and her objections to abortion are not motivated by a lack of reflection on the issue, an all-important ideology, or a belief that a woman under her care is worth less than the associated fetus.

    I certainly don’t deny the existence of people, and doctors, with an axe to grind (for instance, Bush’s heads of the FDA, as well as most of the ethicists and doctors on his bioethics panel). I don’t think, however, that people like that make up even a majority of our opponents. We can’t change everyone, but by demonizing those on the other side rather than trying to understand what makes them tick, we run the risk alienating the ample number who just haven’t come around yet.

  25. Frumious B
    January 31, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    If you fail to seek medical treatment for your child when your child is sick, you are guilty of child abuse.

    nah, you’re just a Jehovah’s witness or a Christian Scientist. or a new age woo-woo.

  26. Dianne
    January 31, 2007 at 1:33 pm

    My wife is interested in pediatrics and internal medicine, and wants to go into family practice.

    May I suggest a med/peds program? Not only would that avoid the possibility of being asked to perform abortions during residency, it would avoid all the surgery aspects of FP, which most people who are into the internal medicine like specialties loathe.

    I certainly don’t deny the existence of people, and doctors

    Doctors and people are separate catagories? I’m not sure whether to feel insulted or complimented… (Yeah, I know what you meant, just couldn’t resist…)

  27. January 31, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    The larger point, though, is sort of illustrated by some of the reactions to my comment. She’s not a bad person, and her objections to abortion are not motivated by a lack of reflection on the issue, an all-important ideology, or a belief that a woman under her care is worth less than the associated fetus.

    This kind of drives me nuts. The problem with these sorts of “objections to abortion” that are “not motivated by a lack of reflection on the issue…” is that if you follow through your opposition of abortion to its logical end, well, it kind of has to come to the conclusion that the woman is worth less than the fetus. I’m not saying that it’s always easy or straightforward to come to these conclusions — examining our own biases rarely is.

    Look at it this way — I never gave much thought to a lot of things, including why people are anti-choice. I figured it was some religious thing, or whatever, and it was no concern of mine. Only when I started really reading up on feminism (like, really recently — last couple years kind of thing — I spent college looking at rocks) did I realize that these anti-choice, anti-contraception, anti-comprehensive sex ed kinds of points of view come from a common place. They come from a very, very ingrained view of women as less than human. Sometimes these ingrained notions are so below-the-radar, they can even be held by women. My boyfriend has a hard time believing this, but it’s true. The dysfunction of the culture should not be minimized, and the ability of people to hold firm, passionate beliefs that are not in their best interests is well-known.

    I guess all I’m trying to say is that your wife may think that she’s thought through things rationally, or whatever, but that she may have such deep-seated prejudices that she’s not even aware of them. I know I sure wasn’t.

  28. jiggavegas
    January 31, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Comment threads like this are why I love this blog.

    And Robert, I think the commenters above are trying really hard to be respectful of your wife while at the same time explaining to you why her point of view is wrong.

    The problems with health care professionals making moral choices that impact patient care are obvious. You say she “would not perform an abortion if asked” — but you seem to imply that she is not an unyielding pro-lifer. So, as a doctor, would she not perform an emergency abortion on a woman with an ectopic pregnancy? Would she refuse to perform one where the fetus is viable but the mother’s health is in danger?

    Because if she would perform an abortion in cases of medical necessity, then what you’re saying is she would refuse to perform one in cases where she believes the abortion is for the mother’s “convenience,” and that the mother’s right to that convenience is less important than the fetus.

    That type of judgment is quite frankly not her business. But it doesn’t matter what she thinks about a woman’s choice to have an abortion, as long as she’s not in the business of providing abortions. However, if she is against ANY abortion, including those for medical necessity, it would be irresponsible of her to work with pregnant women. She can’t possibly predict what situations may occur, and she could end up putting her patients’ lives in danger by refusing them care.

  29. SDS
    February 1, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    something a doctor just recently said–and i migth not be able to word it as well as him because i haven’t had enough coffee today–

    abortion is failure-

    failure of everything else that should be in place that leads up to that procedure– failure of a system to educate society about the responsibilities and risks of sex and empower people to be safer, of sex education in our schools, failure to keep families out of poverty, keep women safe, etc etc. if pro-lifers really care about life, shouldn’t they be concerned about life that comes before the baby?

  30. February 3, 2007 at 10:25 am

    SDS — pro-lifers DO NOT care about life. The proper term, I’m afraid, is anti-choicer.

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