New York Times Magazine published an important and long narrative on Sunday about “chemical endangerment” prosecutions of new moms who’ve given birth children believed to have been exposed to drugs. The piece tells the stories of several Alabama women who were prosecuted criminally under a state law that makes it a crime to explose children to drugs. But in interpreting the laws, prosecutors and courts have treated fetuses as children.
Emma Ketteringham, who directs legal advocacy at the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told the Times that chemical endangerment laws are essentially, “personhood measure[s] in disguise.”
Personhood laws, which as Colorlines.com’s Akiba Solomon has written, would bestow “zygotes the same rights as the women who carry them, have not passed in any state. But the Alabama law is a step, albeit a small one, in the direction that a Personhood Amendment would lead.
Indeed leaders in the anti-abortion and Personhood movements seem to see it that way too. Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, told the Times that passing bills that criminalize drug use by pregnant women is a win for the movement. “Look,” he said, “we win every time we establish the precedent that the unborn child in the womb is a unique human individual.”
The Alabama law emerges from a toxic mix of anti-abortion movement and the persistent war on drugs era myths about crack babies. That story, about crack addicted babies who grow up to be super-predators, seems to have staying power, even though it’s not even all clear in the Alabama convictions that fetal harm was actually caused by use of drugs.
Drug prosecutions and child protective investigations both disproportionately target families of color. In turn, these existing inequities make women of color particularly vulnerable to become targets of these laws since the criminal justice systems and child welfare system are the likely contact points where the prosecutions begin.