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The Christian Theocratic Agenda Imposed on the Bodies of America's Poor Women

Laws around the country, especially in the South, are relegating women to mere child-bearing vessels.

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In addition to restricting access to abortion and certain form of contraception, states have begun holding women accountable for the outcome of their pregnancies. One woman in Indiana was charged with attempted murder when she survived a suicide attempt while pregnant; another women in Mississippi was indicted for “depraved heart murder” after traces of a cocaine byproduct were found in her stillborn baby’s blood. National Advocates for Pregnant Women has  documented hundreds of cases around the country in which women have been detained, arrested and sometimes convicted — on charges as serious as murder — for doing things while pregnant that authorities viewed as dangerous or harmful to their unborn child.

The justification for such actions is almost always cast as concern for the child but behind it is the strong need to control women. The need to control women is framed as adherence to ‘traditional Christian values’ and consequently not an appropriate area for state intervention. This biblical view was expressed most clearly by the Supreme Court of Alabama in a  recent decision upholding the conviction of a woman charged with child endangerment for using drugs while pregnant. In ruling that the use of the word ‘child’ in the Alabama statute was meant to apply to an unborn child or fetus, Chief Justice Moore wrote a concurrence to his own majority opinion in order to advance the following argument:

As the gift of God, this right to life is not subject to violation by another’s unilateral choice: “This natural life being, as was before observed, the immediate donation of the great creator, cannot legally be disposed of or destroyed by any individual, neither by the person himself nor by any other of his fellow creatures, merely upon their own authority.” Even the United States Supreme Court has recognized that “‘[t]he right to life and to personal security is not only sacred in the estimation of the common law, but it is inalienable.’”

Under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, states have an obligation to provide to unborn children at any stage of their development the same legal protection from injury and death they provide to persons already born. Because a human life with a full genetic endowment comes into existence at the moment of conception, the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” encompasses the moment of conception. Legal recognition of the unborn as members of the human family derives ultimately from the laws of nature and of nature’s God, Who created human life in His image and protected it with the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” Therefore, the interpretation of the word “child” in Alabama’s chemical-endangerment statute, § 26-15- 3.2, Ala. Code 1975, to include all human beings from the moment of conception is fully consistent with these first principles regarding life and law.

In the theocratic male-dominant world of Gilead only women were tested for fertility. If a wife or Handmaid failed to conceive, it was deemed the woman’s fault. In a society where women’s value derived from their ability to bear and raise children, failing to reproduce made one a social pariah. In the novel, suspecting her husband was the source of their fertility problem, the wife conspired with the Handmaid to assist her to become pregnant by another man. In a society where a woman could be hanged for fornication or adultery, better to risk the life of your Handmaid with illicit sex than your own.

Infant mortality is affected by the health and well-being of women before and during pregnancy, the quality of prenatal and delivery care, and the health and care of babies from birth. The infant mortality rate is considered a general measure or indicator of the overall health and well-being of a population, because risk factors such as poverty and access to health care also directly affect the health of infants. Reducing infant deaths requires addressing these multiple factors. Higher rates of these risk factors, contribute to Mississippi having the  highest rate of infant deaths in the United States. Alabama is on its heels with the second highest infant mortality rate in the nation. Not surprisingly these statistics don’t reflect racial disparities within states – in Alabama the infant mortality rate for black babies  is more than twice the rate for white babies. Tennessee, no slacker in denying access to health care, has the fourth highest rate of infant mortality in the United States. And yet  each of these states along with the entire southern region (except Arkansas) has refused to accept federal funds for Medicaid expansion, effectively denying access to health care to millions of its poorest and vulnerable residents. In today’s theocratic south, women are held responsible for their birth outcomes, not society or any of the myriad factors commonly understood as social determinants of health.

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