For immediate release
Nearly 1,400 cases of pregnancy criminalization over 16 years, mostly concentrated in just five Southern states
NEW YORK — Pregnancy Justice, which is dedicated to recognizing and defending pregnant people’s human rights, released a new report entitled The Rise of Pregnancy Criminalization, documenting nearly 1,400 cases of pregnancy criminalization in the 16 years leading up to June 2022, when the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturned Roe v. Wade.
The report finds that state actors have investigated, arrested, and prosecuted pregnant people at an accelerating pace from 2006 through the Dobbs decision, often on the pretext of protecting “unborn life.”
“Our report shows that pregnant people are increasingly targeted for criminalization in ways that do not exist for people who are not pregnant, with dire consequences for themselves and their families,” said Lourdes A. Rivera, president of Pregnancy Justice. “We need to dismantle the harmful and punitive systems and practices that criminalize people based on gender, race, and class. Pregnancy Justice fights for the human rights, bodily autonomy, and full personhood of all pregnant people – and we invite others to read this report and join us in this fight.”
The report reveals that criminalization disproportionately affects poor white and Black people living in the South, with nearly four in five cases coming from just five Southern states: Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee. As the report explains, four of the states that have the highest numbers of criminalization also have “backdoor” personhood laws. In these states, judicial decisions have expanded the definition of “child” in the criminal laws to include fetuses or explicitly criminalize the pregnant person if a newborn is born exposed to a drug.
Some key findings include:
- The report found that 1,396 criminal arrests took place over the 16.5 years between January 1, 2006, and June 23, 2022. This is a more than threefold increase since Pregnancy Justice’s last study, which covered a shorter time span.
- Nearly four in five (79.4%) arrests took place in just five southern states—Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Mississippi. These states are among the top 11 in maternal mortality, showing how criminalization does not improve maternal or fetal health, and in fact, undermines it.
- More than nine in 10 cases involved allegations of substance use—which is used as a basis to criminalize pregnant people, even when there is no harm to the fetus or infant.
- According to the case information available, poor white pregnant people were the most criminalized population, and poor Black pregnant people were also overrepresented in the data.
- Pregnancies of people who were criminalized resulted in a wide variety of pregnancy outcomes. Two in three cases involved a live birth with no mention of negative health outcomes for the infant.
Pregnancy Justice will continue to address the criminalization of pregnant people through the Pregnancy Prosecutions Tracking Project, a partnership with law schools across the country, to track pregnancy criminalization in real time, gather data, and aid pregnant people suffering deprivation of liberty.
“The policing and criminalizing of pregnant people is not new, but never before have we had such a comprehensive picture of the full scope of how they—especially those who are poor and living in the South—are losing their autonomy, their rights, and their freedoms because of police, prosecutors’ and politicians’ desire to control pregnancy,” said Dorothy Roberts, professor at Penn Carey School of Law and author of Killing the Black Body.
“Pregnancy Justice’s report clearly shows how the carceral approach to substance use established during the ‘war on drugs’ is being applied to pregnant people, who are being investigated, arrested, and prosecuted for using substances—even as substances are being decriminalized and medical experts warn that criminalization only harms pregnant people, their families, and communities,” said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
“The findings in this report are a call to action, and anyone working to achieve greater bodily autonomy ought to heed that call,” said Monica Rae Simpson, executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. “We must challenge the systems that collude to criminalize pregnant people, ensure that neither poverty, gender, nor race is criminalized, and ensure everyone can get the care they need and live full, thriving lives without fear, stigma, or punishment.”
Pregnancy Justice works to ensure that no one loses their rights because of their capacity for pregnancy or pregnancy outcome, focusing on people who are most at risk of state control and criminalization: those who are low-income, of color, or use drugs.