a bird and a bottle

Updates from Atlanta & the NAPW Conference
January 19, 2007, 6:12 pm
Filed under: feminism/s & gender

Alas, no live blogging. The Hilton (which charges $12.95/day for email access in the rooms) doesn’t have wi-fi in the common areas. So I’ll update in the evenings and breaks as best I can. Jessica, Shark-Fu, and Amanda have already covered the events of the day’s opening plenary session, which was inspiring, to say the least. Lynn Paltrow, NAPW’s Founder and Executive Director, spoke eloquently and passionately – as ever.

Since they’ve got that talk covered (and I really encourage you to read their posts), I’ll jump to this afternoon’s panel called “How Might You Be Prosecuted? Let Me Count the Ways.” Manned – er, womanned – by Jill Morrison of the National Women’s Law Center and my friend Tiloma Jayasinghe of NAPW, who set the legal stage for us, the program also featured Tayesha Aiwohi, the first woman prosecuted in Hawai’i for giving birth despite a drug problem, and Mary Barr, who has also been incarcerated because of her drug addiction.

Tayesha’s story is both enraging and encouraging, and she told it with incredible poise and insight. Tayesha was arrested in 2003 and charged with second degree murder. In 2001, Tayesha had given birth to a boy who, ostensibly because of her drug use during her pregnancy, died two days after his birth. At the time of her son’s death, she had four children, and had been working to overcome her addiction for several years.

Two years later, when Tayshea was in drug recovery, with a stable job and a happy home life, she was indicted for murder and later, convicted. She lost her job. She was asked to leave the college in which she had enrolled. Her children were made fun of at school, her husband, father, and other family members harassed when they went out in public. Fearing for her children, Tayshea pled guilty to manslaughter and was given 10 years probation. In November 2005, based in part on an amicus brief submitted by NAPW, the Hawai’i Supreme Court overturned her conviction, holding that the state’s manslaughter law did not apply to fetuses.

Today, Tayshea has been sober for over five years, is working, has custody with her husband of her children, has adopted two other children, and is about to finish her bachelor’s degree. She has also started a foundation called the Tayshea Aiwohi foundation which raises money in her son’s memory and runs two homes for women with children who are in drug recovery and seeking to reunite with their kids.

Tayshea’s story is one of success. But it’s also a cautionary tale. She reminded us in her talk of the fear she felt, and that she has heard other women voice. Because they fear prosecution, pregnant women who are also addicted to drugs go underground – they do not seek prenatal treatment because they are deathly afraid that their doctors will turn them in, either to the police or to the state’s child protective services. This is no way to protect the health of families and children – the supposed goal of punitive approaches to pregnant women who use drugs.

During the Q&A, another woman shared her story of incarceration and addiction. She told of being arrested while pregnant and of having her wrists and ankles shackled during her in-prison birth. If we really cared about the health of children and families, we would not allow this either – the delay that taking off a woman’s handcuffs and leg shackles can cause during an emergency can mean the difference between life and death for her and the fetus she carries.

I’ve been struck today, time and again, by how ineffective punitive approaches are to securing the health of women, children, families, and communities. But I’ve also been struck by how infrequently women are actually a factor in this debate. So often — too often — we talk about how to ensure healthy children, or healthy births. But as Erica Lyon said in a panel today, we need to push for a goal of healthy mothers as the building block of healthy families and healthy communities. While it might be more efficient politically to talk about children’s health (and certainly the government focuses on fetal and children’s health usually to the exclusion of concern for pregnant women and mothers), it’s disingenuous.

As the inimitable Loretta Ross, co-founder of SisterSong said today, when we talk about reproductive justice, we need to think holistically about women’s lives and to include the right to have or not to have children, and the right to parent our children.

A separate, but related issue that was raised today is how the law should fit into all of this. As a law student (barrister-to-be, as my father likes to say), this is of particular interest to me. This morning, Georgia state Representative Stacy Abrams spoke about growing up religious and anti-abortion rights, and about finding her own belief system in her adulthood. While she doesn’t call herself pro-choice, she said, she’s not pro-life either. As a tax attorney, she has thought a lot about how the law shapes people’s lives (she claims that the tax code is inherently unfair to women!), and she has come to this conclusion: “The role of law is not the same as the role of each individual.”


In that one sentence, Rep. Abrams said what the pro-choice movement has had troble articulating for the past almost 35 years since Roe v. Wade. What the abortion rights movement is saying is not “abortion for everyone!” but rather “abortion without judgment for anyone who wants it.” It’s a big difference linguistically, politically, and in reality. And it has plagued the movement for years. But I think Rep. Abrams got it just right. The law can do a ton to protect us from encroachment (speech, religion, basic First Amendment protections), but it should not impose any ideal upon our daily experiences and the choices we make that shape our lives. Like she said, our roles as individuals should not be that of law, and vice versa.

It’s been incredible today to listen as so many other women shared their stories of pregnancy, parenting, abortion, and arrest. In this post, I haven’t even touched on the discussions today about birthing rights – the right to a home birth, the right to try a vaginal birth after a cesarean section, the right to a midwife, even the right to give birth without pitocin, an epidural, or some other strong drug. (Also, did you know that many women have ORGASMS during childbirth!?! I had no idea! I think if more women knew this, fewer would choose that epidural!). There are clear – but never voiced – connections between reproductive rights work and birthing rights work, even though abortion may be the one issue on which these two camps cannot agree. But both abortion and control over the conditions in which a woman gives birth boil down to state control of women’s bodies and women’s reproductive choices. One panelist today said that women are made to feel totally unsure and lacking confidence throughout their nine months of pregnancy. So by the time they get to childbirth they feel totally unable to assert themselves and to stand up for the way in which they want to give birth. This struck me as analogous to the experience of incarcerated women, who are told throughout their incarceration (implicitly and explicitly) that they are not fit to be mothers and cannot make decisions about their bodies, their pregnancies, their children (whether through laws denying abortion funding to incarcerated women or laws that immedaitely sever parental rights after a child has been in foster care for a certain number of months, even when the reason for that foster care is the mother’s incarceration).

Whew. And that’s only day one.

Stay tuned for more tomorrow from Hotlanta.*

*Incidentally, it’s 45 degrees here today. I thought this was supposed to be warm in the South!


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thank you for sharing these stories. They are remarkable. And I think they frame the second part of your post – on ‘The role of law is not the same as the role of each individual’ – in an essential manner.

Over twenty years ago, the late legal scholar Bob Cover published his seminal “Nomos and Narrative” in the Harvard Law Review. There he argued:

“We inhabit a nomos – a normative universe. We constantly create and maintain a world of right and wrong…No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exist apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture.”

The stories that you are sharing are the unwritten epic of pregnancy and the law. Their import is far reaching.

Later, Cover argues:

“The position that only the state creates law thus confuses the status of interpretation with the status of political domination.”

He argues that communities interpret law in ways often far more organic and powerful than judges. And that different communities can live different interpretations of the same law. If it is commonly held that judges make legal meaning by handing down decisions, Cover argues that legal decisions destroy the legal meaning embedded differently in each community. Such decisions are sometimes necessary, sometimes helpful, but always violent, always destructive of certain narratives and experiences.

Today, the narratives around abortions rights – pro and con – are familiar to almost everyone; and, as is widely known, “life” is often a more powerful story than “choice.” The stories that you have shared – and the thrust of the whole conference from everything that I have gathered – shape a narrative of women, of children, of pregnancy, of abortion, of birth, of still birth, of life. It is a deeply powerful narrative in which to understand the ways the law shapes – and at times encroaches on – our lives. “Pregnant women” may be a more powerful narrative that “choice.” If only you could fit “Pro Pregnant Women” on a lapel button…

I look forward to the rest of your posts.

Comment by professorplum

Awesome comment, PP. Thanks for bringing ol’ Bobby Cover in too. I’m a big fan. And I think you should patent your “Pro Pregnant Woman” lapel button. Otherwise I am going to head on over to Cafe Press and oder them in bulk.

Comment by bean

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