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The Pregnancy Police and the Citizens’ Arrest of Pregnant and Nursing Women

Most women who’ve been visibly pregnant know that lots of people you don’t know suddenly feel they have a say in your life. Perfect strangers—on the subway, in the elevator, on a street corner—ask when you are due, the sex of your baby, the number of children you currently have. People you don’t know touch your belly without permission, as though you were a ripe cantaloupe awaiting sale, and offer “helpful” and entirely unsolicited advice on what you should or should not eat or do.

Most women who’ve been visibly pregnant know that lots of people you don’t know suddenly feel they have a say in your life. Perfect strangers—on the subway, in the elevator, on a street corner—ask when you are due, the sex of your baby, the number of children you currently have. People you don’t know touch your belly without permission, as though you were a ripe cantaloupe awaiting sale, and offer “helpful” and entirely unsolicited advice on what you should or should not eat or do. While such exchanges usually can be shrugged off as the well-intentioned intrusions of strangers, have enough of them and you begin to feel like the pregnant-version of Mrs. Potato Head under surveillance: a walking, bulbous shape with no brain, face, or identity beyond your belly and no identifiers except those projected onto you by other people.

Most of us also are well aware that on the other end of the spectrum, far right lawmakers across the country have become self-anointed pregnancy police, writing laws and policies restricting access to everything from comprehensive sex ed to birth control and abortion; making women pay for rape kits; deciding where and when mothers can breast feed; merrily slashing funds for the services that ensure poor women have access to primary preventive health care, such as breast exams, pap smears, and testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections; and contesting the health reform law that would help alleviate some gaps in access. Taken together, these actions limit the rights and often threaten the health of women of reproductive age and sexually active women of all ages. It is pretty much the stated intention of these folks to turn women into Mrs. Potatohead figures…giving us arms and legs and expressions only at a time and for a purpose that suits them best.

Now we have another form of “pregnancy control:” The citizen’s arrest. The citizen’s arrest is the natural extension of our obsession with controlling women’s sexual and reproductive lives. It is the emboldenment of or “natural conclusion” drawn by people conditioned to see women as Mrs. Potatohead. It may not land you in jail, but it handcuffs you in various ways, circumscribing your actions, limiting the public space in which you can participate, sometimes affecting your livelihood. It takes away the right to move about in the world just like everyone else (read: men). And it goes beyond pregnancy to include breastfeeding, medical care, and any and all other actions the male half of the population takes for granted as their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In recent weeks, a series of seemingly unrelated actions taken by private citizens, business, and corporations has shown just how emboldened private actors have become in deputizing themselves in policing women.

First example: At a bar and restaurant outside of Chicago last week a bouncer took it upon himself to tell a pregnant woman she had to leave.


“She might get hurt.”

The woman, Michelle Lee, is a 29-year-old Chicago native now living in Denver. She is eight months pregnant. She came to town for a baby shower thrown for her by her friends, and then went out with them afterward to the Coach House, a bar and restaurant in suburban Roselle, Illinois, to drink some water and have a slice of pizza.

Not allowed. Since Ms. Lee is pregnant she apparently is subject to surveillance. Or at least so thought the bouncer, who approached her and told her she had to leave.

“He said to me, ‘I have a personal question to ask you, are you pregnant?’ I said yes. Then he said, ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave,'” Lee told ABC News.

Lee told the Chicago Tribune she was only in the bar for 15 minutes before being asked to leave, and that the bouncer told her Coach House would be liable for her if she got hurt in the bar.

“That is not acceptable behavior,” Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, told ABC News, in a statement I fear should have been so obvious to everyone we would not otherwise be writing about this. But, as she notes, “we live in a country where people feel increasingly empowered to make decisions for pregnant woman.”

Pause here for a second to consider this: “You might get hurt.” Why the pregnant woman? Aren’t the other women in the bar as vulnerable (or not) to getting hurt (by what…not clear)? Isn’t every man that walks into a bar at the same risk of “getting hurt (by whatever it was the bouncer feared)?” Wasn’t the bar going to be liable for those same people in case the unknown catastrophe came to pass? It wasn’t the woman. It was the fetus she was carrying that was of value; it was her belly. And for some reason the bouncer felt he was justified in policing the vessel.

This is, of course, ripe for a lawsuit.

“There are certain things for which you are not able to discriminate against someone, and one is their gender,” Ed Yohnka, an American Civil Liberties Union spokesman, told the Tribune. “And only women can have babies. You can’t discriminate against a pregnant person.”

Okay, you say, but this is an isolated incident.

I wish it were.

Every day in the United States, citizens are deputizing themselves to police pregnant women. These people feel empowered to make what is in effect a citizen’s arrest of women who are or might be pregnant, or who are trying to avoid pregnancy, on the assumption they know what is best for these and all women.

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Take for example the case of the Walgreen’s pharmacist in Nampa, Idaho who refused to fill a prescription for a drug to stop uterine bleeding unless the nurse practitioner revealed whether the patient had had an abortion.

According to Planned Parenthood, as quoted in Jezebel, here’s what happened:

Planned Parenthood officials said the complaint states that the pharmacist inquired if the patient needed the drug for post-abortion care. The nurse refused to answer the question based on confidentiality of health information.

According to Planned Parenthood, the pharmacist then stated that if the nurse practitioner did not disclose that information, she would not fill the prescription. The nurse alleged that the pharmacist hung up when asked for a referral to another pharmacy that would fill the prescription.

First of all, is it the job of pharmacists to diagnose and prescribe? Or is it their job to fill prescriptions for medical care deemed necessary by a medical practitioner licensed to write the prescriptions pharmacists are supposed to fill. What business is it of a pharmacist to actively invade a patient’s privacy by inquiring why she might need a drug prescribed by the medical professional who diagnosed a condition worthy of medication, and who took an oath to protect the health and life of the patient in front of them?

This also is not an isolated incident. In fact, pharmacists are one of the largest groups and in a class of their own among the new pregnancy police. Creeping conscience clauses in law and policy—to which, unfortunately, some progressive groups have capitulated a number of times lobbying for one law or another—have spread like their own cancer throughout our health care system and have empowered fundamentalist Evangelical and Catholic pharmacists to act as unaccountable judge and jury in deciding whether or not women can fill prescriptions for medications approved by the FDA and prescribed by their doctors. These actions immediately curtail women’s ability to exercise their rights. They are put under “medical arrest,” stripped, variously, of their rights to prevent a pregnancy (when they are denied access to various forms of contraception, including emergency contraception), to terminate an unintended, unwanted or untenable pregnancy, or to protect their health in the case of a pregnancy gone wrong. Similar types of policing of women’s bodies is increasingly done by Catholic medical hospitals which refuse not only to dispense contraception, or provide emergency contraception to rape victims, but also to provide an abortion even in the case where a pregnant woman would die by continuing the pregnancy. As we’ve recently seen, hospitals that transgress ideological rules and save a mother’s life are themselves policed by the Catholic Church hierarchy, and can be “excommunicated” for saving the lives of pregnant women in distress.

Recently, the pregnancy police have also begun to invade social networks. Faceless employees at Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site and a company notoriously bad for sharing otherwise private user data or limiting the use of the site with little accountability, have taken it upon themselves to police photos of pregnant and nursing women, deeming them to be “obscene.”

In December, for example, Facebook flagged photos posted by a birth and maternity photographer from Iowa as obscene, and disabled her page, adversely affecting her business.

According to the Associated Press, Laura Eckert’s photography business, New Creation Photography & Design, specializes in pictures of pregnant women and the first moments of a baby’s life. She uses Facebook to communicate with clients and highlight her work and had posted pictures including shots of a friend and her newborn moments after birth that partially showed her friend’s breasts, but not her nipples. She said she was shocked when Facebook told her last month it had removed “inappropriate photos” from her page, saying she had carefully cropped pictures to comply with company policies.

According to AP, Eckert, 33, said when she tried to log on to find out which photos were targeted, she found her account was disabled. She said she sent 30 or more e-mails to Facebook to inquire and try to be reactivated and didn’t get a response until Thursday of that next week…. a day after KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids reported on her plight.

“It’s funny it happened after the media got involved. I sent many polite e-mails asking for information over the course of the last few weeks and got no response. None,” she said in an interview Thursday afternoon at her home in Shueyville, a small town between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

Facebook then apologized in an email “for the inconvenience,” and restored her account. Facebook spokesman Simon Axten said the company reviews thousands of pieces of content every day and takes action to ensure Facebook “remains a safe and trusted environment for everyone.” Implying, of course, that pregnant and nursing women are somehow out of control, not to be trusted, lack judgment or are dangerous (I guess to the very children they are carrying or nursing in those photos)?

Supporters of Eckert who formed a group on Facebook to lobby for her reinstatement, charged the that the company was hypocritical for targeting photos they considered beautiful art while routinely allowing pictures of teenage girls dressed provocatively and others they consider obscene.” In fact, Facebook is so “safe and trusted” you can easily find pages upon pages of Playboy photos there should you so desire. These have not been banned. Perhaps the employees at Facebook have not been able to find them. (For the record, I am not suggesting these or other photos be censored).

Facebook claimed the removal of Eckert’s photos was an example of an occasional mistake; Axten asserted that “[w]hen this happens, and it’s brought to our attention, we work quickly to resolve the issue.” (Sure, as long as a TV station gets involved.)

Having said that, then they turned right around and banned another page.

The Leaky B@@b Facebook page (set up to help convene and support nursing women) was taken down, put back up, taken down and then reinstated again during the first week of January. A message posted there said:

This time cautious celebrations were expressed on the page along with fear that it would just go back down. As I write this it has been up for 7 hours, just about as long as it was up yesterday. Hopefully it will really stay this time.

But participants on the page had their accounts disabled.

Several “Leakies” as we affectionately call those on the Facebook page, had their accounts disabled after receiving warnings for supposed obscene photos. Just like TLB, they received the non-specific form letter via email informing them that they were deleted for violating the TOS [Terms of Service]. These individuals along with numerous other group and business pages have had their accounts deactivated all because someone decided that their breastfeeding photo or information was vulgar.

Facebook’s actions have affected other businesses dealing with pregnancy and maternity products and prompted users of specific pages to self-censor otherwise normal postings of pregnancy and maternity discussions and products.

Judy P. Masucci, Ph.D, president and owner of A Mother’s Boutique shares how Facebook deactivating her account last summer impacted her. Now she tip-toes around her pages on Facebook afraid to say or post anything that may attract unwanted attention. What is she doing that is so obscene? Sharing information and photos that support breastfeeding and mothering. No lewd photos, no hateful content and certainly nothing as revealing as what you can find on the Playboy Facebook page. (I can’t bring myself to link to the Playboy page but if you’re really curious do a Facebook search, you’ll see what I mean.)

The perpetuation of the citizen’s arrest of pregnant, nursing, and “maybe-pregnant” women” is a silent cooptation of women’s choices, their health, sometimes their livelihoods, and sometimes their very lives by both groups and individuals who feel emboldened to act on their own to ensure women stay “in their place,” and to reinforce, however indirectly, the social norm that the value of a woman is in her womb. They are emboldened by a political environment in which fundamentalist and so-called “pro-life” lawmakers work assiduously to limit women’s rights and “progressive” leaders tell women to shut up when their rights are traded away in the interest of someone’s election aspirations “common ground.”

This year we face what will arguably be the greatest number of attempts in any given session at the state and federal level to pass laws restricting women’s rights to safe sex and choice in childbearing. It is a climate in which the problem of citizen’s arrests of women is likely to get worse before—and if—it gets better.

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