The Daily Tar Heel

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Tuesday June 6th

Column: The prison system has always preyed on pregnant women

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Throughout the years, when reproductive rights were threatened but not yet struck down, we would be momentarily forced to grapple with the possibility of a post-Roe world and what that would look like. 

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September 2020 and Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed onto the Supreme Court, a post-Roe country suddenly became close enough to taste. And as we anticipated this inevitable post-Roe society, it invoked images of back-alley abortions and the risks they carry.

But on June 24, our hypothetical post-Roe society was no longer hypothetical. There’s no more theorizing about an era without guaranteed legal abortion. We’re living it. 

The consequences of this legal decision extend further than we can imagine. The imagery of a post-Roe world isn't just back-alley abortions, but invasive surveillance and incarceration. The carceral system has always preyed on pregnant people, and the criminalization of abortion is the newest arm of the already gigantic monster that is mass incarceration.

Abortion is now completely illegal in 13 states, mainly due to trigger bans. 10 of these states do not have exceptions for cases of rape or incest. And that’s not including the 10 states where abortion is legal only for now, as their bans are temporarily blocked.   

Without the protection of Roe, abortion can now be considered a crime. With provocative words like “murderer” being used by militant pro-life groups to describe those seeking abortions, the argument that people who receive abortions should be prosecuted — alongside the doctors who perform them — is gaining more traction. 

Abortion is becoming an increasingly attractive target for police and prosecutors. Texas State Representative Briscoe Cain, whose seat is up for election in November, said he would introduce legislation to allow district attorneys to prosecute abortion violations even in areas outside their jurisdiction. 

Whether or not this is feasible, it proves that pursuing prosecution of people seeking abortions is very much a priority, especially in conservative strongholds. 

Of course, even in states where abortion is illegal, there are counties with Democratic district attorneys who have vowed not to pursue prosecution of those seeking abortions. But that kind of protection is on a case-by-case basis, and it’s ultimately up to local governments and is subject to change as leadership changes. 

The scariest part lies in the fact that the criminalization of pregnant people is not new: The foundation for widespread incarceration of this group has existed for years. Between 2006 and 2020, over 1,300 women were arrested for actions taken during their pregnancy, according to a 2021 study by the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Pregnant people have been penalized for miscarriages, stillbirths and pregnancy loss due to existing laws designed to protect fetuses.

In 2017, Latice Fisher was arrested for killing her infant child after losing her 35-week pregnancy. Police searched her phone to see that she had previously researched abortion pills, and this information was later used to prosecute Fisher. Now, as abortion is overtly criminalized in states throughout the country, the door is wide open for similar criminal action against pregnant people.

This relationship between pregnant people and the criminal justice system has existed since the War on Drugs — an effort in the 1970s by Richard Nixon to reduce drug use that consequently resulted in the mass incarceration of Black Americans. Widespread panic over drug use led to stigma, especially around Black mothers who lost their pregnancies.

Amidst this stigma, 25 states and the District of Columbia require healthcare providers to report suspected drug use among their pregnant patients. And with this discretion entirely up to the predominately white doctors that make up our healthcare system — in a generation raised by unjust stigmas around race and drug use — poor women and women of color are disproportionately targeted.

In 1989, the Medical University of South Carolina drug-tested pregnant women without their consent, resulting in the arrest of 30 women on the grounds of child abuse. All but one were Black.

The bodies of people who can become pregnant have always been policed, and are part of the intricate carceral system that impacts each and every one of us in profound ways. The overturning of Roe v Wade is not just about abortion, but about our rights and autonomy as citizens and our ability to be free from a violent and pervasive police state. 


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