I’ve been travelling a lot this last couple of weeks, so haven’t had the time for blogging. But I keep reading them and last week came across an interesting question. It was this:
You are a smoker and you have a pack of cigarettes in your pocket. Someone approaches you and asks to bum a cigarette. You hand one over. A moment later, you realise you’ve just given a cigarette to a pregnant woman. Do you run after her and take it back?
The person who wrote the blog post also mentioned a situation where a woman was arrested for drinking while pregnant. As I subsequently learned, there are many such cases:
One state, South Carolina, by judicial fiat has declared that viable fetuses are legal persons and that pregnant women who use illegal drugs or engage in any other behavior that jeopardizes the fetus can be prosecuted as a child abusers or murders. Indeed, the arrest of pregnant women is not limited to those using illegal drugs. In Utah, a woman was charged with murder based on the claim that she caused a stillbirth by refusing to have a c-section earlier in her pregnancy.
A quick Google search turns up lots of instances of women being prosecuted for drug use or whatever while pregnant, including a great NY Times article on the issue and one from the Guardian, which documents the case of a woman accused of murder after she lost her baby at 36 weeks. These examples are all from the US – I can’t find any examples from the UK or Europe.
So back to the cigarette dilemma. You’ve handed out your cigarette and discovered the recipient is a pregnant woman.
Should you take the cigarette back?
No. Here’s why.
First of all, cigarettes are harmful to everyone. If you have a moral problem with people harming themselves, then don’t hand out cigarettes in the first place. But having handed over the cigarette, it’s too late. The attempt to take it back would be an attempt to police someone else and their body.
But why isn’t it OK to police pregnant women? After all, unborn babies are uniquely vulnerable because they are still developing.
First, because strangers don’t have full information about the situation, and can’t get it by a quick glance at the body of a fully clothed woman. Not only that, but when and how foetuses are harmed is contentious – it’s considered safe to give pregnant women chemotherapy after the first trimester, for example, while numerous studies have suggested that very light drinking during pregnancy doesn’t produce problems. In Europe, doctors don’t seem concerned if women have one or two drinks a week. So while it may be better to err on the side of caution, and while moderate to heavy drinking can be devastating to a developing baby, it’s not true that all alcohol in all circumstances is problematic. This is for the woman’s doctor to sort out, not a stranger.
Not only that, but a passerby can’t have full knowledge of this particular woman’s situation. Maybe she wants a single cigarette because she’ s just had a shock, and if she didn’t get the ciggie she’d go and get a whiskey. Maybe this cigarette is the only one she has throughout her entire pregnancy and maybe at this particular moment in time not having it is worse than having it.
Finally, you have to assume that a pregnant woman is an adult in charge of her own choices, who presumably wants what’s best for her developing child.
But what if a pregnant woman is clearly causing harm to herself and her developing child? What if she’s propped up against the bar, slugging back whiskey after whiskey, in between puffs of crack? Isn’t there a duty to intervene then?
Glamour magazine ran a story about a woman who was arrested for breastfeeding her child while intoxicated, who ended up on a felony charge of child neglect – a charge which potentially carried five years in prison. The author of the article suggests that instead of prison:
Put the woman on probation. Make her take a year of parenting classes (which she clearly needs). Assign a CPS worker to make visits. Test her blood-alcohol level ever Friday night–whatever needs to be done.
Great suggestion! Take a woman struggling with a pregnancy or a child and who knows what else – alcoholism, maybe – and put her under punitive Orwellian surveillance for as long as the state wants.
Now, child neglect is a very serious thing, and society rightly claims the right to intervene when the life of a child is in danger. But if you start from the position that the mother is a full human being who is making the best decisions for herself and her child that she can, you come to different conclusions about what to do about neglect. Instead of punishing the woman, you might look at the circumstances she’s in and see if there’s anything that can be done to help, from offering a shoulder to cry on, through to offering detox.
We all take care of what we value. If women value themselves and their own lives, they’ll value their children as well. Punishing, monitoring and dehumanising pregnant women – by framing them as nothing but incubators – hardly does this.
Under the guise of caring about women and babies, the proponents of policing and prosecuting pregnant women are actually advocating for something creepy – for reducing pregnant women to a status that is something less than human. Whereas if they really cared, they might start with a simple question: “Are you OK?”