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Birthing Injustice: Pregnancy as a Status Offense

Priscilla A. Ocen
85 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 1163

Over the last thirty years, pregnant women, particularly pregnant women of color, have increasingly come under the supervision and control of the criminal justice system. In July 2014, Tennessee became the first state in the country to pass a law criminalizing illegal drug use during pregnancy. Within weeks of its enactment, several women were arrested and subjected to prosecution under the statute. In Alabama, the State Supreme Court upheld convictions of several women after finding that the state’s chemical endangerment statute applied to fetal life. The women convicted of these crimes joined hundreds of other pregnant women arrested for or convicted of similar offenses. Indeed, according to recent studies, over 1000 women have been convicted of crimes ranging from child endangerment to second-degree murder as a result of conduct during pregnancy. In almost all of these cases, the conduct of the women prosecuted would have been lawful or subject to a lesser penalty had it been committed by a nonpregnant person.

This Article makes two central claims about the increasing number of criminal prosecutions of pregnant women. First, this Article contends that pregnant women are subject to a form of status offense. Status offenses, which criminalize the behavior of individuals within a select group of people that would be noncriminal if committed by persons outside of the group, have been utilized to regulate disfavored classes. Pregnant women, especially those who are poor and of color, are similarly constructed as a disfavored class and are therefore subject to unique forms of criminal regulation. Through the imposition of criminal liability, the state is enforcing gendered norms and policing the line between “good” and “bad” motherhood. As such, criminalization and incarceration play a significant role in the regulation of the reproductive autonomy of women. Second, the Article asserts that the prosecution of pregnancy- based status offenses violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

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