An article published this week documents the “criminalization of pregnancy” in the US over the last four decades. The main reason used to support the arrests of and forced interventions on pregnant women is that these women are causing fetal harm through their poor choices (e.g. using drugs, denying medical treatment, and engaging in risky behavior). The 413 cases described in this article highlight the common social belief that women cannot be trusted to make good decisions for their fetuses and that infringing upon these women’s rights is justified for the sake of the fetus.
This social distrust toward pregnant women to prevent harm to their fetuses is found in various aspects of life. For example, warnings on alcoholic beverages caution only against pregnant women drinking. There is no similar warning for men seeking to become fathers even though alcohol use in men increases the chance of birth defects and low birth weight. Nor are there any warnings about all the other harms that occur due to alcohol consumption, harms that often cause more overall damage and affect more people, such as drunk driving and crime. Similarly, warnings on cigarettes only mention the harms women can cause to fetuses, even though secondhand smoke from male partners is also bad for fetuses and men who smoke are more likely to have children with birth defects and low birth weight. While such warnings are generally good and useful for the public, what I find problematic is that they ignore paternal fetal harm on only focus on maternal fetal harm.
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