Stop shackling pregnant women!

Alicia Beltran

Alicia Beltran

In Wisconsin, Alicia Beltran, 14 weeks pregnant, went for a prenatal check up to make sure that everything was going to be well. She explained to the PA in her doctor’s office her concerns. One was a pill addiction that she had actually ended a year earlier. Instead of addressing her concerns, her doctor’s office betrayed her trust and the celebrated code of confidentiality between patients and doctors, supposedly the basis of medical practice. They called the police. Two days later, the police came to Beltran’s home and shackled her. She was rushed to court handcuffed and shackled, where she was denied access to a counsel but where a lawyer was already assigned to represent her fetus. Then, she was ordered into a drug treatment program although there was no trace of drug in her body, although she was taking care of herself, although she had trusted her doctor and society to respect her as a person. For Beltran, the consequences of this abusive treatment are dire. They include losing her job. In fact, the state has endangered her health, the health of her fetus, her social status and the well being of her family, current and future.

Wisconsin is one of 38 states, including Maryland, that has passed so-called feticide laws. Three states – Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota – have passed “cocaine mom” laws, and that’s what happened to Alicia Beltran. Finally, the first federal lawsuit to challenge these laws has been filed by The National Advocates For Pregnant Women, the Reproductive Justice Clinic of New York University School of Law, and Linda S. Vanden Heuvel, Alicia Beltran’s lawyer. This threat to pregnant women has been on the rise as more women are thrown behind bars.

The lawsuit is the first to challenge these laws that are threatening women for being less than the fetus they carry, especially when they are women of color and/or poor, in brief socially vulnerable.

Last year, a bill was introduced in committee in the Maryland legislature. If passed, the bill would have put into law a ban on shackling pregnant inmates. Surprisingly, or not, the bill was defeated.

These practices of shackling pregnant women serve two purposes. They render women as less than human and they “de-womanize” society. Last year, Maryland repealed the death penalty. It is time for Maryland, and all states, to show real commitment to women’s rights and women’s equality.

Hopefully, Alicia Beltran’s case will set a precedent. Whatever comes out of the suit, we should not forget that feticide laws were presented to protect pregnant women. In reality, by creating the fetus as a full person separated from the woman’s body, feticide laws have one purpose:  to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, Roe v Wade and its guarantees of women’s right to decide for themselves. External control of a woman’s body is an assault on the dream and the possibilities of a society with more equality, better distribution of wealth, and richer harmony. We need to support all and any efforts to “de-shackle” women.


(Photo Credit: Feministing / The New York Times)

Fetal homicide, death penalty, and the neoliberal agenda

Last Monday, three young women who had been missing for about a decade were able to escape from their sequestration in Cleveland, Ohio. Ariel Castro, the kidnapper, has been arraigned on seven charges for kidnapping and rape. He could also face the death penalty for fetal homicide, by causing miscarriages on his victims. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty explained, “The law of Ohio calls for the death penalty for those most depraved criminals who commit aggravated murder during the course of a kidnapping.”

When I first read this, I felt that this was justified. I was outraged by the suffering those women had to go through, and I was relieved that there was a way to punish him by taking his life as he had denied them of their own lives for so long. But then I realized my initial reaction went against everything I believed in, and I was appalled. I have always been adamantly against the death penalty. How can we strive for a just and humane society if our response is to kill criminals? And the argument the prosecutor is using to have him face the death penalty is that he “committed aggravated murder” of unborn fetuses. Looking back, I think that what caused my initial reaction was fear. Fear that this kind of atrocity can happen. Just knowing that these women had been sequestered and tortured, I felt that this could have been me; it was a direct attack on my person as a woman. And I wanted them to take his life away. I was suddenly going to trust the American justice system to decide who can live and who must die. After all, doesn’t he incarnate evil for beating up his daughters’ mother and for abusing women?

What I should be afraid of is the precedent the prosecutor will set if Ariel Castro gets the death penalty. Pregnant women are already being imprisoned throughout the country for `endangering the lives’ of their fetuses. If the precedent is set, will women be in danger of facing the death penalty for having an abortion or a miscarriage?

At the same time, Ariel Castro getting the death penalty sees the abuse of the three women through only one lens, that of their fecundity and womanhood. Why is it that the daily suffering, threats, violence, rapes, trauma, and inhumanity those women were subjected to are not seen as being more important than those unborn fetuses? The violence and abuse they went through is normalized, the press is shocked but not outraged. Instead, the biggest crime was to prevent the birth of those children.

Our understanding of this unfathomable tragedy is constructed around this country’s politics on women’s reproductive rights and the personhood debate instead of seeing it as another example of dehumanized violence. Why can’t we give these women more respect by focusing on their survival? Instead of focusing on their bodies as reproductive vehicles, why can’t we focus on them as women whose spirits enabled them to live and survive?

We need to be more careful and not let our emotions control the way we understand the media construction around such events, no matter how nightmarish they might be. As women, we are vulnerable to neoliberal policies, such as feticide laws, that aim to control our bodies. As citizens, we should question a society that still resorts to the death penalty. For the past week, the phrases fetal homicide and death penalty have been covering up the news nationally and worldwide and they are part of the neoliberal agenda to instill fear in all of us and to reiterate our vulnerability in the face of evil, embodied by Ariel Castro this week. But we need to remember that, just like all of us, Ariel Castro is a member of this society. He does not incarnate evil; he embodies the violence and misogyny of our society.

(Image credit: The Atlantic / Lauren Giardano)

Plenty of reasons to be outraged

Jessica Valenti started a recent address with a question that she said a young man asked her: “Why are you so angry?” She immediately said that she was not angry but sad and exhausted. Then after enumerating a series of laws and actions against women and reminding the audience that the Hyde Amendment has nullified the Roe decision for many financially vulnerable women, she finally admitted that she is angry: “I am angry that forty years after Roe, women are still fighting for recognition of our basic humanity.”

The fact is that there are plenty of reasons to be outraged.

A recent study demonstrates that, in the United States, many actors are eager to deny women their basic humanity and access to care and are already doing great harm to pregnant women thanks to recent legislation that put a pregnant woman in a lower rank than a fetus.

The feticide laws have encouraged and required health providers to inform police of pregnant patients who had problems with drugs. Many providers comply with these demands quite easily, especially when their patients are African Americans and/or poor. In many instances, for women patients, and especially for African American women patients, there is no medical confidentiality.

Why are so many American doctors ready to relinquish their medical ethical responsibility toward their women patients? A court can put a fetus in protective custody with a guardian to the fetus being appointed by a court decision requiring “the fetus to be detained…and transported” to the local hospital for “in patient treatment and protection.” The care of the mother is not considered, whether by health care providers of the pregnant woman or whether by the court.

Where are medical ethical rules for women like Laura Pemberton who wanted to have a vaginal delivery after having had a C-section? Her doctor used a court order to perform the surgical procedure. Pemberton was strapped and hauled off to a judge who decided her fate. Neither she nor her husband was allowed legal assistance.

In case after case, pregnant women who have sought help for reasons ranging from problems with drugs to requesting vaginal birth as the first option have been threatened and persecuted instead of being helped, and all of this with the approval of their own health care provider.

Where are the social workers and social programs to support women with the problem of drug addiction? Instead, their lives are torn apart even more?

Astonishingly, already inadequate access to health care is threatened during pregnancy, especially, but not only, for women who live in precarious conditions. They need to be listened to in order to receive the most appropriate care. Instead of receiving health care, they get prison.

Absurd situations have been created to intimidate and even terrorize pregnant women.  Sometimes the State goes to unbelievable lengths. For example, one woman was imprisoned because she “did willfully and unlawfully give birth to a male infant”.   In its absurdity, the wording of the official court document shows the profound disdain for the life of the pregnant woman

Sending pregnant women to prison in the name of protection of the personhood of the fetus while prenatal care provided by the state to incarcerated women is notoriously inadequate, if not absent, is absurd … and criminal.

There is an alternative.

Under the Nazi occupation of France, authorities commanded French doctors to report any wounded person. The board of the newly formed French Medical Association responded immediately:

“The President of the French Medical Association takes this occasion to remind every colleague that when called to assist the sick or the wounded, there is only one mission to fulfill and that is to deliver care. Respect for professional confidentiality is a necessary condition for the trust those who are ill have in their physicians. No administrative reason whatsoever exists that allows you to free yourself from this obligation.”

This declaration was sent to every doctor in the country. It became the nonnegotiable rule of ethics. It still is. This declaration is engraved on marble and is visible in the hall of the French Medical Association building in Paris. It is also taught in medical school to future doctors who would have eventually to fight for their patients’ protection. To this day, medical confidentiality is key and protects patients, even in court.

Doctors, nurses and other medical and social workers should be protecting women, who deserve the care they need. Instead, they have become `providers’, removing their human responsibility that the French doctors once understood to be their unbreakable ethical duty. Alternatives to state brutality already exist. Being ethical sometimes demands resistance to inhuman laws.


(Photo Credit: Charlotte Cooper / Flickr)