Jessica Valenti

Pregnant Women Who Are Assaulted Are Being Treated Like Criminals — Not Victims

Acting “dangerously” while pregnant could get you arrested

Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/DigitalVision/Getty

GGenerally, when a person is attacked and seriously injured, they’re considered the victim of a crime. That wasn’t the case with Marshae Jones. When the 28-year-old woman in Alabama lost her pregnancy after being shot in the stomach, she wasn’t consoled by police — she was arrested and charged with manslaughter.

Police claim that Jones instigated the fight that led to her getting shot; the woman who actually pulled the trigger had her charges dismissed. “The only true victim in this was the unborn baby,” Pleasant Grove Police Department Lt. Danny Reid told a local reporter.

Arresting Jones is just the latest in a long line of attacks on women — women of color and low-income women, especially — who lose their pregnancies: women like Melissa Ann Rowland of Utah, who was charged with murder after she refused a C-section and one of her twins was stillborn, or Christine Taylor of Iowa, who was charged with attempted feticide after she fell down the stairs at home.

Criminalization of those who lose pregnancies is part of the anti-abortion agenda — establishing personhood for embryos, giving fetuses more rights than the people who carry them. It’s also a slippery slope.

Lt. Reid also said, for example, “When a five-month pregnant woman initiates a fight and attacks another person, I believe some responsibility lies with her… That child is dependent on its mother to try to keep it from harm, and she shouldn’t seek out unnecessary physical altercations.” But how do we gauge what kind of activity is unnecessary or physical? What other “dangers” might pregnant woman be arrested for?

We should always be worried when the government starts telling women what to do with their bodies.

Where, then, do you draw the line? Suppose someone got into a car accident and was found to be going 10 miles over the speed limit: If they were pregnant and miscarried, under this standard, they could be charged with murder. Or lifted a heavy box while pregnant and later delivered a stillborn baby. Or stayed in an abusive relationship and lost her pregnancy. Could a woman be arrested for not taking prenatal vitamins or for having the occasional glass of wine? And the real question: Should police officers and legislators — who are disproportionately men — decide what constitutes dangerous or unnecessary behavior while pregnant?

We should always be worried when the government starts telling women what to do with their bodies. In 2016, for example, the Centers for Disease Control released recommendations that women who are not on birth control should refrain from drinking — at all — on the off chance that they’re pregnant. Ten years earlier the organization had similarly recommended that all American women of reproductive age (so anyone who has a period, basically) to treat themselves as “pre-pregnant”: that is, keep a healthy weight, take folic acid supplements, forgo cigarettes and alcohol — even if they had no intention of getting pregnant in the near future, or ever.

Women are not vessels-to-be, and treating them as such is what leads to things like Jones’ arrest. Pregnant women have the same rights as anyone else. If it’s not illegal for a non-pregnant person to get shot, why would it be illegal for a pregnant person to be attacked? Once we start to argue otherwise, we’re making clear that pregnant women aren’t people at all.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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