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Delivering Bad News: The Processes and Consequences of Criminalizing Pregnancy

  • Author(s): BrennanKane, Laura
  • Advisor(s): Currie, Elliott P.
  • et al.

Legal, medical, and social regulation of pregnant women has been an understudied topic in sociology and criminology. While difficult to say how pervasive this phenomenon is, Paltrow and Flavin (2013) have the most comprehensive research on its magnitude. They documented 413 women who were civilly or criminally confined because of their pregnancies. My research sought to extend this work by understanding the processes, legal hurdles, and specific details of each woman’s story as she came under scrutiny during her pregnancy. What was it about pregnancy that invoked the use of legal force to control a woman’s body? How did doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals respond to women who had problematic pregnancies? Using 26 case studies of women who were criminalized based on their pregnant status, I examined the processes by which these women were regulated and why the regulation occurred. Although each case is unique, when taken as a whole, I found that the women were not trusted to make good decisions on behalf of their fetuses and that doctors, nurses, police, social workers, and judges intervened to take away their agency. Criminal and civil laws were mobilized against women to force them to conform to the wishes of these social control actors. I give several policy suggestions in order to effect change and argue that creating a culture of prevention would lead to better success at fostering good pregnancy behaviors and would ensure the goal of healthy children more than the current reliance on criminalization practices. I suggest that prevention, not regulation would be a better process for both the mother and the baby because it reduces actual harm, but also because it has practical economic implications and gives doctors the ability to do what they do best: practice medicine, not law.

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