Tennessee is one of the most activist states that it comes to protecting children; for example, it has the among most stringent laws in the nation regarding the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse. It also has a new law that just went into effect this month that allows officials to arrest mothers for assault who illegally use narcotics while they are pregnant if the child is born with symptoms indicating that the drug use impaired the child’s condition.
Predictable and tiresomely, the media and “war on women” scolds are attacking this is yet another incursion on the rights of women to have dominion over their own bodies. Think Progress, dishonestly, calls it a “pregnancy criminalization law.” This is intentional misrepresentation, a TP specialty. The law doesn’t criminalize pregnancy in any way, by even the most distorted interpretation. The knee-jerk opposition to the law highlights the problems of consistency and integrity that the women’s rights and pro-abortion forces have in all the areas relating to childbirth. Essentially, their position is that if conduct is related to child birth—or preventing it—in any way, anything they say, want or do must be accepted, and asserting otherwise, no matter what the justification, makes the government an oppressor of women.
The Tennessee law is narrowly drawn and legally consistent. Mothers are now on notice that taking illegal drugs while pregnant is likely to harm their gestating fetuses. The state has an appropriate role to play by stating that doing so is not just unwise but wrong. The state also has a legitimate interest in protecting innocent life, both by its laws and the messages those laws send. Yet a coalition of reproductive rights and criminal justice groups in Tennessee have launched a protest against the legislation,called “Healthcare Not Handcuffs,” arguing that threatening women with criminal charges dissuades them from coming forward to get the medical help they need and that the law will fall most heavily on the poor and minorities.
The reason I believe that the current state of abortion legalization will not stand over time is controversies like this one, which expose the conveniently shifting values and standards of the women’s rights and reproductive rights movement, as well as the dubious quality of those standards. A late term embryo is protected under the law: a women and her doctor cannot legally choose to abort it except to save the life of the mother. Yet opponents of the Tennessee law are arguing that no penalties should be attached to the conduct of willfully harming that legally acknowledged life if it comes as a result of the mother’s illegal drug use. Why? If a husband killed his eight month pregnant wife to make sure she didn’t give birth to a child fathered by another man, he would be charged with two murders. Would the opponents of this law similarly assert that an eight month pregnant woman could induce an abortion by taking doses of poison, or by repeatedly punching herself in the gut?
Well, maybe they would, as many of these advocates, for the sake of advocacy, refuse to acknowledge that an unborn child should have any rights at all when it the child’s mother who is harming him or her. These same advocates are, in many cases, the first to accuse opponents of gun restrictions as not caring about the welfare of young children. The lives of innocent children are paramount, unless protecting those lives mean that members of an exalted group actually have to be responsible, or, if not, suffer the consequences. I do not think that “reproductive rights” include the right of a mother to cripple her child because she insists on using a drug that it is illegal to use anyway.
It would be interesting to examine the origins of the illogical yet strangely respected trend of social activists moving from the goal of ensuring that women and minority groups are treated equally by the law, to the position that the groups should have special dispensation from the laws, prohibitions and values that everyone else must live by. I can’t harm a woman’s unborn child, but she can, and moreover, she is allowed to claim that she’s only abusing her body even though the Supreme Court—a liberal Supreme Court, not the nasty, women-hating Supreme Court majority we have now—ruled decades ago that by the third trimester, another legally-protected life is involved. A disproportionate number of poor and minority mothers continue to use illegal drugs (that is, engage in criminal activity) after they are pregnant, so, say the compassionate activists, we should eliminate laws that would hold them responsible for this. If mostly white and wealthy mothers were the ones crippling their children, presumably such laws wouldn’t be seen as a priority. This is, you will notice, a thinly veiled “everybody does it” rationalization applied to the law. If a disproportionate number of a favored group is breaking a law, then the law is unjust, and the conduct must be regarded as legal.
This is all ethically incoherent, intellectually dishonest, and expedient. It is not a “war on women” to require mothers to be responsible and law abiding, particularly when the health and welfare of children are involved.
It is unethical for a mother to use illegal drugs.
It is unethical for a mother to jeopardize the health of her unborn child—at any stage of development—by using illegal drugs.
It is unethical to negligently cause harm to a child that the rest of society will have to pay for, perhaps for a lifetime.
It is ethical for the state to take measures to protect innocent and helpless lives, which, under U.S. law, a third trimester unborn child is.
If it is ethical for the state to protect such a life against harm inflicted by others, it is ethical for the state to do against harm inflicted by the mother.
Naturally, Tennessee has shot itself in the metaphorical foot by choosing as its first violator of the law a mother who used an illegal drug that may not be covered by the law. (The law is probably too narrow; it should include, for example, alcohol abuse.) The inability of our various governments to craft laws competently and enforce them consistently is another problem for another day. It is reasonable for the government to put all mothers on notice that if they abuse their unborn child by taking illegal drugs, and the child is born with health problems as a result, the mother will be held accountable.
The arguments to the contrary by women’s groups and others seem to embrace a shifting definition of life, and inconsistent views regarding the priority of protecting children, all to protect politically favored groups at the expense of good policy, public health,responsible conduct and common sense.