The passage of the study action initiative on reproductive justice a couple of years back by the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) — of which we are an associate organization — challenged us to look at issues of human sexuality, pregnancy, and gender identity in different ways than our prior focus on legal rights and access to care. The four-year period dedicated to education and discernment allows us to ponder and respond to questions such as:
- How do power structures limit individuals’ access to reproductive justice?
- How do sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse contribute to unintended pregnancies later in life?
- How can eliminating racism, classism and sexism reduce the need for abortion and enable families to care for the children they do have?
- How are pregnant women who use drugs stigmatized, and what are the real dangers and solutions?
The latter question is one that might especially challenge those of us who have accepted as indisputably true that the use of illegal drugs by pregnant women is something that should be condemned in the harshest terms. We hold in our minds and hearts images of crack babies, narcotics withdrawal, and permanent damage.
This past week, Tennessee became the first state specifically allowing the filing of assault charges with a penalty of up to 15 years when a fetus or newborn is judged to be harmed by illegal narcotics. It is now on Governor Bill Hassam’s desk to veto or sign.
The New York Times in an editorial declared that “even by the standards of the growing… assault on lives and rights of women” this one is especially “mean-spirited and counterproductive.” They call on the governor to heed the pleas of medical specialists in obstetrics and drug addictions, as well as women’s rights groups, to stop this bill.
A recent news story in the same paper had reported that risks to newborns have been exaggerated and that withdrawal symptoms can now be treated without long-term impact on the mental and physical health on these children. Instead of acting in the best interest of the child, the measure’s main impact will more likely be frightening drug-using pregnant women away from seeking necessary prenatal care or to have abortions in order to avoid being jailed.
This is not the first time in recent years that Tennessee has passed this type of measure. Previous measures have been modified or abandoned.
Instead of continuing to punish and bully pregnant women whose choices have been unwise, the Times urges policy makers to turn their attention to funding efforts to address and alleviate well documented pregnancy risks: poverty, cigarettes, alcohol, and prescribed drugs—the biggest threats today.
This law and others that will inevitably follow it give us the opportunity to have serious and perhaps highly challenging conversations within our own UU communities. And call for the deepest compassion and commitment to true justice.