August 19, 2014
I confess that after a week of terrible news, I really wanted to look away from headlines containing the phrase “pregnant, suicidal rape victim.” I did not want to read about an 18-year-old woman, an undocumented immigrant to Ireland, who couldn’t leave the country to get an abortion, nor access one where she lived—despite an Irish law saying abortion is legal when the life of the pregnant person is at stake. I didn’t want to think about a country that would force this young woman to continue her pregnancy and undergo a caesarean section at 25 weeks, rather than allowing her to have a much safer and less invasive procedure in the interest of saving her life.
I certainly didn’t want to think about my own country committing that kind of intrusion into a woman’s life and medical decisions.
But then, before I could stop myself, I thought about Bei Bei Shuai, the Indiana woman who went to jail in 2011 after a suicide attempt that inadvertantly ended her pregnancy. Shuai was 33 weeks pregnant by her boyfriend when she found out he was married to someone else, had other kids, and wouldn’t be sticking around for her or the baby. Writing in The Nation a year later, Katha Pollitt described what happened next: “When Shuai begged him to stay, he threw money at her and left her weeping on her knees in a parking lot. Despairing, she took rat poison and wrote a letter in Mandarin saying she was killing herself and would ‘take this baby with me to Hades’; friends got her to the hospital just in time to save her life.”
Shuai had barely had time to heal from the emergency C-section she underwent there before Marion County prosecutor Terry Curry filed murder and feticide charges against her. Eventually, in 2013, she pled guilty to the lesser charge of criminal recklessness. Her sentence was 178 days; she’d already been incarcerated for 435.
Suicide is a more common cause of death in pregnant women than several well-known health complications, including preeclampsia, but as Jessica Grose wrote in her Slate series on prenatal depression, “Until very recently, doctors didn’t even know a woman could get depressed during pregnancy: They thought antenatal hormones protected against it.” Scientists are finally studying prenatal depression and suicidal ideation, but meanwhile, we live in a country where a woman can be jailed for attempting to kill herself while pregnant.
And just last month, a Florida hospital threatened to report Jennifer Goodall to child-welfare authorities if she didn’t consent to a C-section, and warned that if she came to the hospital in labor, doctors would perform the surgery “with or without her consent.” When she sought a restraining order to prevent this, a federal district judge claimed that the patient didn’t have the right “to compel a physician or medical facility to perform a medical procedure in the manner she wishes against their best medical judgment”—as though she was demanding to have open-heart surgery via butter knife, or an oxygen tank filled with carbon dioxide, rather than choosing one common childbirth method over another.
Goodall, already a mother of three children born by C-section, understood the risks of natural childbirth after multiple caesareans, but wished to attempt labor before agreeing to be cut open again. In the end, that’s exactly what she did, at a different hospital; she tried for a vaginal birth, but when labor didn’t progress, she consented to a fourth C-section and delivered a healthy baby girl. In the final weeks of her pregnancy, though, the doctors who were supposed to help her deliver, and a court that is supposed to protect citizens’ rights, left her “terrified to enter a hospital,” according to RH Reality Check.
She was lucky, relatively speaking. In New York in 2011, Rinat Dray, who wanted to have a vaginal birth after two caesareans, was operated on without her consent—by a doctor who also cut into her bladder during the procedure.
Meanwhile, this past April, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam signed a bill authorizing prosecutors to charge pregnant women who use illegal street drugs with assault. In July, 26-year-old occasional meth user Mallory Loyola was arrested two days after giving birth.
A year ago in Wisconsin, Alicia Beltran was forced into a drug treatment program after telling a physician’s assistant she was weaning herself off the drug Suboxone, which she’d been taking after struggling with Percocet addiction. In that case, the medical paraprofessional believed she should continue taking Suboxone, and Beltran was arrested and sent to rehab so authorities could force her to keep using a drug she wanted to stop. According to NBC News, Beltran was denied an attorney at her first hearing, but one was appointed for her fetus.
Around the same time, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that the state of California had illegally sterilized almost 150 female prisoners between 2006 and 2010. Says the report: “The allegations echo those made nearly a half-century ago, when forced sterilizations of prisoners, the mentally ill and the poor were commonplace in California. State lawmakers officially banned such practices in 1979.”
All over this country, women are being treated like incubators and moral children, just as surely as that young woman in Ireland was. Instead of being regarded as adults making decisions about their own health, pregnant women who suffer from addiction or refuse recommended treatment or attempt suicide are regarded as the abusive mothers of children who don’t yet exist. And until more than a very small number of men (i.e., transgender men in possession of female reproductive organs) can become pregnant, this behavior is by definition discriminatory. There is no condition, apart from certain mental illnesses, that warrants this kind of state intervention in the medical decisions of grown men.
You can say that if most men gave birth, they’d be subject to the same intrusions, but forgive me if I’m not as interested in hypothetical scenarios as I am in the reality where women can be forced to undergo major surgery without consent, and arrested for how they treat their own bodies. You don’t have to think that going off a stabilizing drug, or using an illegal one, or attempting a vaginal birth after three c-sections are smart decisions to recognize them as decisions that belong to the owner of a given body, and no one else.
In light of all this and the continued rollback of abortion rights, we’re facing a future where the same woman, during the same pregnancy, could theoretically be barred from having an abortion, arrested and imprisoned for a suicide attempt, then sterilized against her will while incarcerated. I can’t imagine a better illustration that these anti-woman laws are more about controlling female bodies than protecting fetuses or newborns.
We are not Ireland—not yet—when it comes to restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom. But I hate to think about how close we’re getting.
Photo credit: Flickr user William Murphy