The National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW)’s new study, “Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973– 2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health” appears today in the peer-reviewed Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law. I’m sharing some highlights from their press statement, but check out the entire piece, including their discussion of political actions.

Here are some of the cases NAPW summarizes:

  • A woman in Utah gave birth to twins. When one was stillborn, she was arrested and charged with criminal homicide based on the claim that her decision to delay cesarean surgery was the cause of the stillbirth.
  • After a hearing that lasted less than a day, a court issued an order requiring a critically ill pregnant woman in Washington, DC, to undergo cesarean surgery over her objections.  Neither she nor her baby survived.
  • A judge in Ohio kept a woman imprisoned to prevent her from having an abortion.
  • A woman in Oregon who did not comply with a doctor’s recommendation to have additional testing for gestational diabetes was subjected to involuntary civil commitment.  During her detention, the additional testing was never performed.
  • A Louisiana woman was charged with murder and spent approximately a year in jail before her counsel was able to show that what was deemed a murder of a fetus or newborn was actually a miscarriage that resulted from medication given to her by a health care provider.
  • In Texas a pregnant woman who sometimes smoked marijuana to ease nausea and boost her appetite gave birth to healthy twins.  She was arrested for delivery of a controlled substance to a minor.
  • A doctor in Wisconsin had concerns about a woman’s plans to have her birth attended by a midwife. As a result, a civil court order of protective custody for the woman’s fetus was obtained. The order authorized the sheriff’s department to take the woman into custody, transport her to a hospital, and subject her to involuntary testing and medical treatment.

In all, the researchers identified 413 criminal and civil cases involving the arrests, detentions and equivalent deprivations of pregnant women’s physical liberty that occurred between 1973 and 2005. These 413 cases in 44 states, the District of Columbia and federal jurisdictions are likely a substantial undercount and does not include more than 250 known cases that have occurred since 2005. You can read here about a decision last week in Alabama that will intensify the state’s ability to police pregnant women.

In the cases reviewed for  this paper, pregnant women were subject to arrests; incarceration; increases in prison or jail sentences; detentions in hospitals, mental institutions and drug treatment programs; and forced medical interventions, including surgery. The researchers wanted to know, what was the basis of these arrests and forced interventions?

“Our analysis of the legal claims used to justify these arrests found that they relied on post-Roe measures such as feticide laws and the same arguments made in support of so-called ‘personhood’ measures – namely that state actors should be empowered to treat fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as completely legally separate from the pregnant woman,” said Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) and lead author of the study.

Jeanne Flavin, PhD, Fordham University professor of sociology, president of NAPW’s board of directors, and the study’s co-author, said “The public debate about personhood and other anti-abortion measures tends to focus narrowly on abortion.  Our study makes clear that all pregnant women are threatened by such measures.  These measures not only undermine maternal, fetal, and child health, they deny women’s status as full constitutional persons, as human beings.” Flavin is author of Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America.

While the study shows that low-income women and African American women are more likely to be deprived of their physical liberty, it also confirms that these state interventions are happening in every region of the country and affect women of all races. The researchers argue that as “personhood” measures continue to be promoted in state legislatures and in Congress, and as we observe the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, this study broadens the conversation from one just about abortion to one about health policy and the legal status of pregnant women.

Read the report.

-Virginia Rutter