The War on Drugs Has Reached into the Womb - and Threatens Abortion Rights

Human Rights

What does the war on drugs have to do with the war on abortion? More than you’d think: the anti-choice movement has been successfully using drug laws to give fetuses legal personhood rights for years. Today, 18 states consider drug use while pregnant to be child abuse - a standard that not only punishes pregnant women who need help, but that has profound implications for reproductive rights.

Consider the case of Kenlissia Jones, a 23-year-old woman in Georgia who ordered Cytotec off the internet to end her pregnancy. We don’t know why she didn’t seek out an abortion legally (though it could be because 96% of counties in Georgia lack an abortion provider). What we do know is that, at 5 months, Jones’pregnancy ended in the back of her neighbor’s car en route to the hospital, and that she was arrested soon after for malice murder, a crime that carries the chance of life in prison or the death penalty.

The murder charge against Jones was eventually dropped; Georgia law doesn’t allow for the prosecution of women who end their own pregnancies. For most, the story ends there: reproductive rights activists were understandably relievedand the media moved on to the next story. But the one charge against her that remains – possession of a dangerous drug – underpins a dangerous anti-choice strategy that has gone ignored for too long.

As Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women told me: “if you don’t address the war on drugs, you can’t address the war on abortion.” Paltrow, whose work, in part, involves cases in which women have been arrested for using drugs while pregnant, says “my head is exploding around this.”

We’ve been saying this for 15 years: if you set a precedent that a woman who tests positive for drugs is guilty of child abuse, then certainly a woman who induces abortion by drugs is guilty as well.

This isn’t the first time that anti-choice activists have created legislation supposedly unrelated to abortion to further their cause. They did the same thing with domestic violence policy: the Unborn Victims of Violence Act was ostensibly about creating separate punishments for people who harm a fetus while perpetrating violence against a pregnant woman, but what it really did was enshrine into law that fetuses at any stage of development are distinct from the women who carry them.

But because the mainstream pro-choice movement is so busy dealing with clinic restrictions and explicit attacks on abortion, they’re mostly absent around the connection between drug laws and efforts to attack reproductive rights. (Paltrow has been writing about the link for years; in 1999 she wrote a paper warning of the conservative effort to use drug laws to criminalize abortion and about the role of racism in these policies.)

“If you punish pregnant people for their drug use, it doesn’t matter what kind of drug it is - a woman smoking pot to reduce morning sickness or an abortion-inducing drug,” Paltrow told me, adding: “we have to recognize the common cause.” And as abortion restrictions increase and more women seek out illegal and home terminations, pregnancy-ending drugs will become increasingly common – so the need to act on these laws will become even more urgent.

Already, some medical professionals are taking action. Some 15 states require health care professionals to report suspected drug use by pregnant women, but the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have come out in opposition to doctors reporting patients, noting: “seeking obstetric–gynecologic care should not expose a woman to criminal or civil penalties.” And after Jones was arrested, a local doctor filed a complaint against the hospital that treated her, citing privacy concerns and saying: “the law is designed so that people do not fail to seek medical attention for fear of being prosecuted.”

But we need more than doctors protecting their patients: we need policy change, public awareness and pro-choice organizations that prioritize ending drug laws that target pregnant women. The war on drugs is racist, it criminalizes people who need help and it is attacking women’s bodily autonomy – fighting it is a core feminist issue. So let’s start acting like it.

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