At a traffic stop in Alabama, a cop found a small amount of marijuana. Ashley Banks, a 23-year-old woman, admitted to officers that she had smoked weed two days earlier. It was the very same day that Banks learned she was pregnant, reports The Guardian. She was six weeks along.
It was this disclosure — that she was pregnant — that led Etowah County officials to keep her in jail, without a trial, for the next three months. She was charged with ”chemical endangerment” of her fetus, reports Reason.
Alabama has an exceptionally high incarceration rate, reports the Prison Policy Initiative. The Heart of Dixie locks up about 938 people per 100,000 residents. But even in a state with a disproportionate prison population, arrests for smalltime pot possession wouldn’t normally lead to such a lengthy pretrial jailing.
Pregnant Women Can’t Post Bail
Banks fell victim to a weird Alabama law that advocates say Etowah County enforces with disturbing enthusiasm. Pregnant women arrested for drug offenses aren’t even allowed to post bail and go free, the way everyone else is. They have to stay in state custody: either in jail, or in a residential drug rehab program.
The, er, “logic” is that the women are supposedly a danger to their fetuses. Therefore, they supposedly need to be imprisoned by the state for the duration, in order to “protect their pregnancies.”
Jail officials tried to send Banks to rehab. But after a realistic assessment, the drug rehabilitation facility turned her away. Banks, they reasonably said, was merely a casual marijuana user, not an addict, and did not need in-patient drug treatment.
Malnourishment; Barely Edible Food
Too healthy for rehab, but not trusted enough by the state to be set free, Banks was kept in limbo in jail. Meanwhile, her pregnancy was problematic. She has a family history of miscarriages, and was experiencing bleeding in jail.
She also suffered from hunger and fainting spells, reports AL.com. It’s little wonder. The most common complaint at the jail has been of malnourishment, reports Slate. A number of people who went through the jail complained of barely edible food, sometimes rotten, expired, or even “insect-infested.”
In 2018, AL.com reported that the sheriff of Etowah County had pocketed around $1.5 million from a fund meant to feed inmates. Sheriff Todd Entrekin hadn’t even violated state law as it was written. The Depression-era law was meant for a time when the sheriff and his wife were personally responsible for feeding inmates. But it soon became apparent that the good-old-boy sheriff cut corners with meals. This was quite possibly in order to purchase himself a nice beach house. Entrekin was voted out of office after that reporting came out.
These jailings, unfortunately, aren’t just an Alabama thing. The unwholesome trend of imprisoning pregnant and postpartum women for supposedly endangering their fetuses is growing nationwide.
Over 32 years, from 1973, when Roe v Wade was decided, to 2005, the US saw 413 pregnancy prosecutions throughout the whole nation. That’s according to Afsha Malik, a research associate at the reproductive justice group National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Malik is the co-author of a recent report on pregnancy criminalization.
But over the 14-year period from 2006 to 2020, there were more than 1,300 such cases. That steep increase happened while Roe was still in place. Now that it’s fallen, pregnancy criminalization is likely to accelerate even more.
But Etowah County seems a hotbed for what The Guardian calls ”this particular kind of misogynist cruelty.” According to NAPW, the county has jailed 150 pregnant women in recent years. As many as 12 pregnant women are currently held in its jail.
“Warped Logic and Hateful Absurdities”
The Dobbs decision from the stacked 6-3 conservative Supreme Court didn’t create this situation, but it’s almost certain to worsen it. The policy in Etowah County and elsewhere “reveals the warped logic and hateful absurdities of the anti-choice worldview,” according to The Guardian.
The movement claims to see embryos and fetuses as persons. They act as if these “persons” are not women’s equals, but their superiors. The fetus is treated as having more rights than the woman.
In the service of protecting and advancing the supposed rights of the fetus, the anti-choice movement claims it is justifiable — even necessary — to take the freedom of women.
They Aren’t “Protecting” Anyone…
And yet the practice of imprisoning women to “protect” their fetuses and infants makes absolutely no sense, even on its own terms. Jails are, of course, unsanitary, unsafe and violent places.
Banks, with her high-risk pregnancy, frequently bled during her incarceration and had no access to medical care. Burns, who was arrested just a few days after giving birth, was not able to care for her new son, or her toddler daughter.
None of what the anti-choice movement is doing can be said to “protect” anyone. That goes for the actual, living children deprived of their mothers. And certainly doesn’t protect pregnant and postpartum women, shamed and thrown into cages as they’re still bleeding from giving birth.
“One begins to suspect that the only value the anti-choice movement really sees in fetal ‘persons’ is the pretext that it allows them for misogynist sadism,” observes The Guardian.
The persecution of women doesn’t stop even there. Alabama is threatening to force drug tests on all female medical marijuana patients ”of child bearing age.”