A bill has been passed by the Utah House and Senate that will criminalize pregnant women who engage in 'reckless' activity that causes a miscarriage or act to induce an abortion without a doctor's supervision. The Huffington Post and RH Reality Check have posted comprehensive analyses.
Planned Parenthood worked to amend the bill, which originally outlined punishment for pregnant women seen as 'negligent' in their behavior - a far more malleable term than 'reckless' - in itself a worryingly undefined label that could apply to a pregnant woman not wearing a seatbelt, falling accidentally or drinking alcohol. Recklessness is understood as action that the woman should 'have reason' to know could endanger the fetus. Most pertinently, although other states have similar such fetal homicide laws, most of them only apply in the third trimester, whereas the Utah bill concerns the entire length of pregnancy. A woman could be subject to a minimum of 15 years in jail for choosing to undergo life-saving medical treatment, knowing it might cause a miscarriage.
When I read this I immediately thought of all the advice women receive through the media regarding the right way to behave during pregnancy for the health of their unborn child - what to eat, what to not eat. Hair dying, hot baths, a glass of wine, raw eggs, lifting heavy objects. Let alone all the different ways a pregnant women is told she can improve the healthiness, brain power or aptitude for music and languages of her baby before it is born. Pregnant women are given tons of information, much of it contradictory, constantly - they therefore 'have reason' to know that carrying out even the most mundane life holds all kinds of perceived dangers. And that's not counting accidents that occur however much knowledge they might have.
There was a time when women would drink alcohol, smoke and eat anything they fancied whilst pregnant, and they still had healthy babies. There was also a time when even 'excitement' was thought to be risky behavior. We think we are so sophisticated when we see the stories unfold on Mad Men, but the rules are always changing as 'scientific discoveries' unfold. The British National Institute For Health and Clinical Excellence recently released 'myth-busting' guidelines that overturn previously held beliefs on the right calorie intake and correct amount of exercise for pregnant women. The 'myths' referred to are both the long-held, and those contemporarily created by the media depiction of pregnant celebrities. The Institute claims that women only need to take in an extra 200 calories a day in the final three months of pregnancy, but who is to say that this won't be contradicted by a study next year?
The health of a pregnant woman and her unborn child is more critically dependent on the healthcare to which she has access and her standard of living than matters of how the woman conducts herself during pregnancy. The United Nations ranks the US 33rd in the world for its infant mortality rate - behind Canada, the UK, France, Spain, Australia. A study showed children hospitalized without medical insurance are 60% more likely to die.
Much of the advice doled out is tailored to women with substantial incomes, supportive partners and families and understanding bosses. We can get so bound up on whether to do pre-natal yoga or avoid paté, we forgot there are women for whom affording to eat and pay the rent is their main concern. Being impoverished could be considered very reckless indeed.
Update: I received an email this morning from writer Rose Aguilar informing me that the Utah miscarriage bill I discussed last week was not withdrawn as has been reported elsewhere. A new bill with the world 'reckless' replaced by 'intentional or knowing acts' was signed on Monday. The bill's sponsor is now looking to create 'model legislation' for other states to take on. Rose has written about this at Alternet.