I'm really bad at maintaining my blog. But a former college cohort of mine (and a woman I have a great amount of respect for) recently asked me if I blog in response to a post I made on facebook. And I thought, you know she might be on to something. I have a lot of anger and passion regarding many different current social issues, and perhaps my blog is the perfect place to explore some of that. So, sorry mom, I'm not just gonna post life updates on here anymore.
To kick things off, I'd like to bring attention to an incredibly asinine new piece of legislation that our incredibly ignorant state legislature brought to the governor to sign, and in an act of equal ignorance, Governor Haslam indeed signed it. This legislature criminalizes pregnant women for using drugs during their pregnancy, potentially leading to jail time. I absolutely, 100% agree that drug use during pregnancy is really, truly horrible, both for the mother and the child. As someone working in a field where drug abuse and dependence is prominent, I fully understand that there are serious consequences of drug abuse on the individual and society as a whole. As someone who is currently expecting, I also feel a deeper connection to this issue, including an emotional response that I have to check at the door when encountering these sort of situations. I recognize that I am doing every possible thing in my power to keep my unborn child safe, including watching what types of food I eat, what type of air I breathe (sorry smokers, stay away), and totally abstaining from alcohol (guys, that's a big sacrifice for me), and feel a strong moral obligation to do so. But I also recognize that I am able to approach pregnancy and childbirth from a place of abundant resources, privilege, education, and support. All that to say, pregnancy and cultural experiences of pregnancy may be a great future blog post!
So, with the groundwork of my basic stance on the issue of drug use during pregnancy, let's get into the messy details of this legislation, details which everyone who helped make this bill happen have completely ignored or not bothered to care about.
We don't live in a vacuum. Plain and simple. The whole notion of punitive cause & effect is incredibly flawed, since we do not live in said vacuum. In a totally simple, black & white world, where we're all robots and nothing is complicated, it makes sense that someone should be punished for engaging in something illegal (in this instance, illegal drug use) that leads to serious harm of another individual (in this case, an unborn child... which raises other concerns, but let's move on). And the ultimate hope here is that the punitive measures will be a deterrent to the bad behavior. This makes sense if you're dealing with a 5-year-old who refuses to take his nap. This particular issue, however, is much more complex and delicate than lawmakers seem to realize.
First of all, let's consider the incredible racism and classism existent in our current criminal justice system. I see it every day. My homeless clients are incarcerated for things that they simply would not be arrested for if they weren't visibly poor and/or visibly Black. It's absolutely disgusting. From a more fact-based standpoint, though I don't have the data in front of me, I have done research on the disproportionate arrests and sentencing of people of color, based purely on race, and boy is there lots of it. This is a pretty obvious (unless you're a rich, white, probably male politician) concern when addressing a piece of legislation such as this. Women of color and poor women are going to be targets for this legislation. Given the current culture of our criminal justice system, I just can't see this law being enacted in a way that is fair or just across races, religions, and socio-economic classes.
I'd be willing to bet that many of the women addicted to drugs during pregnancy were not intending to get pregnant. Perhaps this is a dangerous assumption, but hey, I'm a risk-taker. If we want to address the effects of drug use on pregnancy, we need to first address the absolute lack of reproductive education and resources available to women in Tennessee. I never received sex education in my public high school. I received slut-shaming abstinence-only education. That is not effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies. Our state needs to start by offering women support before they become pregnant, in the form of true sex education, more accessible women's healthcare, affordable birth control options, accessible early-term abortions, and some freakin' respect. Slut shaming and ignoring the value of women's bodies and reproductive abilities is the first part of the problem, and is never, ever a solution.
So onto the issue of drug addiction. I work in mental health. I work with a lot of people who have addictions to drugs and alcohol. Many of them are in recovery, and I see how unbelievably hard they work at their sobriety. Many of them are still struggling with addiction, and it is a very serious struggle. Addiction is a disease. It is a serious disease, and it rips people's lives apart. Many addicts are also dealing with mental illness, which is perhaps often an underlying cause of the addiction. Addiction is such an incredibly multifaceted issue, with social, financial, cultural, and medical complexities. The criminalization of drug addiction has not adequately addressed the problem of drug addiction in our society. And it won't solve the issue of drug use during pregnancy.
What I envision happening with the implementation of this bill, based on my own experiences in social service work, is that women who have a drug addiction and learn of their pregnancy will forgo prenatal care for fear of arrest and further legal ramifications. Women will hear horror stories of their sisters being locked up, and will therefore fear reaching out. Addiction will continue. Babies will continue being born addicted to various drugs. The cycle of overincarceration of poor women and women of color will continue. No one will be better because of this legislation. A few politicians will sleep better at night because they have tricked themselves into believing they've done something good "for the children", rather than actually getting in the midst of the communities this new law will affect and asking "what do you need?".
Politicians need to stop deciding for women what is best for us. Period. And Tennessee politicians clearly need to consult a few social workers before making any more decisions, ever.
***Let me say here that I know my arguments are very emotionally charged & certainly not fool-proof. I also acknowledge that I use some pejorative language, mostly for my own tension release; I apologize if anyone is hurt or offended in the process. I also want to be very clear in saying that this issue is complicated - I don't know all sides to the story & I don't have all the answers... I definitely don't claim to.