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Criminalizing Pregnancy: As Roe Turns 40, New Study Reveals Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women
A new study shows hundreds of women in the United States have been arrested, forced to undergo unwanted medical procedures, and locked up in jails or psychiatric institutions because they were pregnant. National Advocates for Pregnant Women found 413 cases when pregnant women were deprived of their physical liberty between 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided, and 2005. At least 250 more interventions have taken place since then. In one case, a court ordered a critically ill woman in Washington, D.C., to undergo a C-section against her will. Neither she nor the baby survived. In another case, a judge in Ohio kept a woman imprisoned to prevent her from having an abortion. We're joined by Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "We've had cases where lawyers have been appointed for a fetus before the woman herself, who's been locked up, ever gets a lawyer," Paltrow says. "[We've had] cases where they've ordered a procedure over women's religious objections, and one court said, pregnant women of course have a right to religious freedom -- unless it interferes with what we believe is best for the fetus or embryo." The new study comes on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision on the right to abortion -- a right that has been under siege ever since.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Next week marks marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the right to abortion, a right that has since faced major restrictions. New research shows hundreds of women in the United States have been arrested, forced to undergo unwanted medical procedures, and locked up in jails or psychiatric institutions, because they were pregnant.
AMY GOODMAN: In one case, a court ordered a critically ill woman in Washington, D.C., to undergo a C-section against her will. Neither she nor the baby survived. In another case, a judge in Ohio kept a woman in prison to prevent her from having an abortion. Research has attributed this criminalization of pregnancy to a range of anti-choice laws at the state level encouraging officials to treat a woman’s pregnancy as legally separate.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, co-author of the report, "Arrest of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States."
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Lynn. Talk about what you found.
LYNN PALTROW: Well, we knew that these cases existed. We’ve had the opportunity to talk about them. But they’re often seen as sort of rare and isolated. And, in fact, when we brought up these cases in response to proposed personhood measures that would authorize the states to treat fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses as if they’re entirely separate from the pregnant woman; when we said, "Look, this is going to be used to arrest women who have had miscarriages and still-births. This is going to be used to surveil pregnant women. It’s going to do much more than just, as they claim, end the injustice of abortion," and they said, "That’s just scare tactics" — so we said, "OK, let’s look at what’s going on."
And what we found when we sought to actually document cases is we found 413 cases between 1973 and 2005, after Roe was decided. We picked that period so we know the outcome of the cases. We know, from evidence we got, that there were many more of those cases, but we weren’t—we know because sometimes we were advising women who were, in South Dakota, taken into custody on suspicion of pregnancy, to protect the unborn child from her drinking, for example. What we found were their arrests, incarcerations, as you said, in prisons and jails, forced medical interventions. And some of these cases, we hadn’t heard about, and even surprised us—a case where a woman was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, something that occurs during pregnancy. She didn’t comply with the orders for secondary follow-up testing, so they got a civil—they civilly committed her in the hospital, and they said she wasn’t—she was examined. She wasn’t insane. She wasn’t a danger to herself. But because they claimed that her mental health situation didn’t enable her to go for needed prenatal testing, they could keep her locked up in the hospital. And one of the things we also found is that when those kinds of things happen, it doesn’t mean that the woman or the baby is protected. She was locked in that hospital, and they never did the gestational testing.
But I think part of what we found, too, is, all of this, we sort of talk about it in a language that’s very familiar for the last 40 years: Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion, the criminalization of pregnancy. But what we really learned is that what’s at stake is the personhood of pregnant women, that when you look at what happened in these cases—women deprived of their physical liberty; the case you mentioned, Angela Carter, deprived of her right to life—they’re deprived of due process of law. Women are put in jail and have decisions about forced surgery made in the course of an afternoon. That’s basic due process rights. We’ve had cases where lawyers have been appointed for a fetus before the woman herself, who’s been locked up, ever gets a lawyer; cases where they’ve ordered a procedure over women’s religious objections. And one court said pregnant women of course have a right to religious freedom—unless it interferes with what we believe is best for the fetus or embryo.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Even here in a liberal bastion like New York City, a recent report that more than a dozen city hospitals were routinely testing pregnant women for drugs without informing them about it.
LYNN PALTROW: Absolutely. And what we see, both in the criminal and civil context, is a disproportionate focus for punitive measures on women of color, particularly African-American women. We found that this disproportionality included the greater likelihood of felony charges, a greater likelihood of the doctor turning in an African-American woman. At the same time, we found these cases all over the country and against women of all races. So what we’re—what we’re seeing, and I’ll just tell you about a—
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.
LYNN PALTROW: That we are really talking about not just abortion rights, we are talking not only about reproductive rights, but whether or not, in the guise of trying to end just abortion, we are going to remove pregnant women from the community of constitutional persons.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynn Paltrow, we’re going to link to your report at democracynow.org, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.