The semester’s first Gender & the Law Lunch & Learn, Sterilization for Freedom: Coerced Contraception for Reduced Sentences was hosted on September 20 in partnership with If/When/How and Lambda Law Society.
The event centered on reproductive rights and the justice system’s encroachment on them. Joining for this intimate lunchtime panel were:
- Professor Brenda Smith, WCL professor and Co-Director of WCL Community Economic Development Law Clinic [Moderator]
- Deborah A. Reid, Senior Health Policy Attorney, Legal Action Center
- Amber Khan, Senior Staff Attorney, National Advocates for Pregnant Women
The discussion began with an overview of reproductive justice and the criminalization of substance abuse disorder and pregnancy. While the public often conflates reproductive health with contraception and abortion, this panel asserted the affirmative right of fertility choices.
When approaching the criminal justice system, it is important be aware that more than half of those incarcerated who have mental illness also have a history of substance abuse and that women of color have a higher likelihood of being involved in the system for a drug offense, according to Deborah Reid. This is a symptom of a paternalistic attitude towards women and people of color that are driving these issues, as well as the idea that substance abuse is a “moral failing” rather than a disease or a symptom of a mental health concern.
Pregnancy changes this framework. Amber Khan mentioned, for example, that past drug use is not actually illegal in the majority of the United States. However, if a person is accused of past drug use and they are pregnant, a question arises of whether this behavior should be considered child abuse.
Often, the court will use the sentencing phase to constrain a person’s reproductive rights; as a result, certain populations are punished and their reproductive freedoms are stifled. There is the sentiment that this type of person should not parent, and their children should be taken from them. Amber Khan provided the example of a Wisconsin man who was charged for missing child support payments; one of his probation conditions was that he would not be allowed to father additional children until he could prove that he could financially support them. The court determined here that his reproductive rights were not absolute and were subject to interference with “good reason.”
This event was incredibly moving and informative! A huge thanks to our panelists for providing this unique insight to our students. Stay tuned for new events this semester by checking out our calendar.