Policing pregnancy while corporate drug pushers go free shows warped values

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Vladimir Cuvala/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Vladimir Cuvala/Alamy Stock Photo

A miscarriage of justice

Brittney Poolaw is going to prison for having a miscarriage. Last week the 21-year-old Oklahoma woman was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree after losing her baby at 17 weeks. She’s already spent a year and a half in jail – one of the most dangerous places to be during the pandemic – awaiting trial because she couldn’t afford the $20,000 bond. Now, after a one-day trial, she’s facing four years in state prison.

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It is impossible to say with certainty what caused Poolaw’s miscarriage. The autopsy report reportedly showed the fetus tested positive for drugs including methamphetamine, however it also found a congenital abnormality, placental abruption and an infection. The medical examiner’s report could not identify the use of drugs as the direct cause of the miscarriage; nor could any expert witnesses at the trial. Still, a lack of definitive evidence didn’t stop the prosecution from arguing that Poolaw’s drug use caused the miscarriage and she should be locked up for it.

This case should make your blood boil for several reasons. First, it’s a reminder that freedom can be incredibly expensive. Poolaw wouldn’t have spent the last 18 months in jail if she’d had money to pay her bond. And if she had the money to pay for a top-class legal team I very much doubt that she’d be going to prison now. Just look at the billionaire Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the prescription painkiller OxyContin. Last year Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in federal court to three criminal charges related to pushing sales of the narcotic, which has fuelled an opioid crisis that has killed more than 500,000 Americans. And how much jail time did they get? Zero, of course. Not one member of the Sackler family will spend a minute in jail for their role in an opioid epidemic that has killed half a million Americans. Poolaw, to reiterate, spent 18 months in jail before even going to trial. She’s going to prison for four years because her unborn baby died for reasons no one can entirely explain.

Poolaw isn’t the first woman in the US to be held criminally accountable for losing a pregnancy. A complex web of laws – many of them anti-drug laws – across the US are used to police pregnancy; there are more than 1,200 documented cases of women being arrested because of their pregnancy outcomes since 1973, when Roe v Wade legalized abortion. In 2019, for example, a 25-year-old California woman, Chelsea Cheyenne Becker, was charged with murder over the death of her stillborn baby after methamphetamine was found in the fetus’s system. In the same year, Marshae Jones, a black mother, was charged with manslaughter in Alabama for losing her fetus after being shot in the stomach five times. According to the police Jones started the fight with the woman who shot her, so was responsible for the death.

Even if your baby is born healthy you can still be arrested if the powers that be decided that you may have put your baby in danger while pregnant. Earlier this year Kim Blalock, a 36-year-old Alabama woman, was prosecuted for taking a prescribed opiate painkiller while pregnant. A 2016 investigation found more than 500 Alabama women had been prosecuted for filling their prescriptions while pregnant under the state’s chemical endangerment law.

The policing of pregnancy is set to become even worse in the US, as abortion laws tighten. Twenty-twenty-one is on track to be the worst legislative year ever for abortion rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Ninety abortion restrictions were enacted in the first six months of the year alone. The same people who think the government asking you to wear a mask is a human rights violation want to force women to carry a baby to term, no matter the circumstances. The same people who don’t want to be told to take a vaccine want to dictate exactly how women should behave while they’re pregnant. The same people who dare to call themselves pro-life want to criminalize addiction rather than treat it. And the same system that lets people make obscene profits from highly addictive drugs without facing any real repercussions will lock up pregnant women for taking those drugs.

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