When the War on Drugs and the War on Women Collide

signOne of the ways to identify whether a people group is oppressed is to note how seamlessly the Master’s rhetoric has been swallowed and then regurgitated. The global pregnant population has thoughtlessly vomited phrases like, “he wouldn’t let me,” and “I wasn’t allowed,” in relation to decisions about their bodies for so long that when we hear about intrusive things like mandatory drug screening done without knowledge or consent, we begin to qualify it as “necessary” or make feeble attempts to separate ourselves from the ones it directly affects.

Drug screening sometimes happens at prenatal visits and sometimes happens during routine blood draws following the birth. Most often, low-income women and women on state funded assistance are targeted. Sometimes women are informed about the testing; most often they are not.

“I was surprised after the birth of my daughter when the nurse came in with an adhesive bag to place over her vaginal area in order to collect urine for a drug test. I had never heard about this test, and asked if it was common practice. She replied that my midwife had specifically ordered the test for me. I tried to refuse and the nurse and a hospital social worker came in to inform me that if I refused, social services would be contacted and my daughter would not be released with me from the hospital. I relented, they collected the sample, performed the test, and of course, it was negative. I’m a birth doula now, and have been for over a decade. I often think on this experience, and wonder why exactly my midwife had done that to me. I think it was likely prejudice- I was a young, single, tattooed and pierced mother who was receiving DSHS (medicaid). Her assumption was that I was a drug addict because of my appearance, relationship, and socio-economic status. Im still mad about it.” – M., USA


“I was drug screened at my hospital birth, and wasn’t informed until it came back with a false positive. I was lucky that a nurse on staff new that a medicine I was prescribed for acute heartburn caused false positives for methamphetamine. The doctor who prescribed it nor the pharmacist who filled it nor the leaflet that came with it warned it would have that effect on a drug test. I was mortified. They made my husband leave me while in the early stages of labor to assess that I wasn’t on drugs or suffering abuse…It was scary and traumatic.” – C., USA


“The hospital where I birthed did a drug screen without my knowledge or consent. After coming back positive for THC, my baby was withheld from me in the hospitals nursery until someone from DCFS was able to asses me as fit to care fore my child. This took 2 whole days! It ruined my chances of breast feeding since I could only see my baby girl with hospital supervision and cast a horrible shadow on my entire birthing experience.” – D., USA

Drug screening in pregnancy is one example of the way in which pregnant women are teated as chattel – mere baby pumping, product-dispensers under a system of quality control. Women’s agency in this process is deemed irrelevant, as her individuality, and her authority over her body are held in contempt of her baby. The supposition is that babies must be protected from their mothers and in doing so we have reduced half of humanity to being premediative criminals who would, if given the chance, ignorantly or intentionally harm the fetus growing under their own hearts.

How We Justify

The rationale for justification I’ve heard usually goes something like this:

“It’s sad that it’s come to this, but, you know, some women just don’t even care about their babies. So, it’s up to us to protect them. I don’t like the idea of being tested, but I don’t really care, I’ve got nothing to hide.”

And then to that, I’ve heard the response about how we all “should” care because what if her test came back with a “false positive” – like in the story, above? It’s a legitimate concern, but it certainly doesn’t capture the enormity of the situation. And in fact, I think that reasoning represents a much more sinister problem.

addiction_cocaine_abuse-and-pregnancyThis isn’t about protecting only the “good” portion of the population. This isn’t about “us” vs. “them” in some kind of perverted extension of the War on Drugs. This about all women and the way that a pregnant person has been demoted to the lowest class level in any given society – a sort of universal serfdom, whereby pregnant women are deemed to owe their bodies and their very lives to society as a whole. Where women are people, but the lowest forms of people; where a pre-formed human contained within her fleshy walls, under her pumping heart, fed by her own blood, may be deemed in competition with and superior to the one holding it’s very potential.

These “for the good of the baby” assertions reveal an age-old social construct that places women under the squeaky white shoe of her superiors.

These philosophical positions that suggest we protect unborn babies from their mothers also reveals an even broader and pervasive perversion that is as old as civilization, itself – the division of humans by class; the “us” vs. “them” mentality that we cling to for survival. The one that holds one person as better, more valuable, more intelligent; and the other as bad, ignorant and discardable. The one that offers us a sense of protection; that if we can just establish enough difference, enough separation, that we will be free of the potential oppression.

This argument about “for the good of the baby” doesn’t just become a debate about which is more valuable – a woman or fetus – but rather about WHICH WOMAN holds enough value for this issue to even be legitimate.

“Well, I don’t care, I don’t take drugs, so go ahead and test me,” misses the point, entirely, because it is singularly, narrow-mindedly, selfishly focused on oneself. It presumes that all other women who drug test positive are “bad;” that they are deserving of the repercussions. It makes a broad sweep to brush all women into one of two corners:

“Good Women Who Don’t Do Drugs”


“Bad Women Who Do Drugs and Hate Their Babies”

To hold this position we must really wrestle with the idea that there is actually a significant portion in any given population that truly don’t care about the outcomes of their pregnancies or their developing fetuses. It assumes the formula:

X Behavior + Pregnancy = Sociopath


It is a reality that drug dependent babies are born to women every day. It is a sad reality that should not nor need not be dismissed as we discuss this issue. But holding that reality as justification for an end result of healthier outcomes is illogical.

pregnant jail

Courtesy of popsugar.

Blanket policing of pregnant women and enforcing punitive measures does not improve health outcomes for women or babies. In fact, the fear of criminalization and of losing one’s child actually results in fewer women seeking prenatal care and often needless separation of babies and parents.

In order to throw all positive drug-tested women and babies into two corners, we need to acknowledge that one will be heaped with:

The occasional pot smoker
The woman with a legal THC prescription
The woman with prescribed pain medication from her doctor
The woman with an Oxycotin addiction, making painful attempts to abstain
The heroin addict, too deep into addiction to think straight
The woman who ate or ingested something that resulted in a false-positive result

Aside from the reality that the piles are not one-dimensional, is the realization that nearly all of the above folks give a lot more than two shits about their kiddos. It’s a lot easier for our brains to make neat piles of “those who care” and “those who don’t” – to fold them by color and size like stacks of t-shirts at the Gap. It makes things easier to understand; it keeps our belief systems – about ourselves, and humanity and right and wrong – orderly and easy.

But like most issues, it’s way more complex than that. Because rather than there being two even stacks of “the ones who care” and “the ones who don’t,” is a huge heap of unfolded shirts in various sizes, colors and levels of distress. But they all sit on the same table. And are you ready for this?

They all care.

The one that’s pressed and neat and folded perfectly at the seams doesn’t care more than the one with wrinkles and stains and holes in the sleeves. She just has more support; she has access to resources. The spills, the wear and tear, the ugliness do not necessarily denote self-loathing or malicious intent. What it does reveal is struggle, lack of access to certain forms of support, probably inadequate income, and potentially illness and addiction.

Sometimes it can be easier to identify ourselves by what we are not, rather than what we are. This lack of depth, this unwillingness to share the struggle, this denial of oppressive realities; the way we turn our backs on our suffering sisters and mutter to ourselves about her stupidity; the way we motivate ourselves to survive through division, through elevation and superiority are visceral reminders of our own pregnant slavery and attempts to survive.

It matters that women are being jailed for poor pregnancy outcomes.
It matters that women are having tests performed in secret in order to incriminate them.
It matters that babies are being pried from their mother’s arms as another deems her worthiness to parent.

It matters not just to the women specifically affected; it matters to us all. It matters because it represents a foundational choke-hold on the whole of Womankind.

As women lie, uniformed and shackled within the cinder blocked walls and hard, tiled floors; with their babies held in containment boxes, and their newly non-pregnant bodies pushed on, and poked at, they are scrutinized, inspected, humiliated, and violated. That some of us make it out, unscathed, is not a testament to the workings of a well-oiled system; it is a testament to our creative power, to our selective disassociation, to our subconscious disconnect, all fueled by our primal need to survive.

It’s time to stop caring selectively about pregnancy and birth-related issues. The protection of homebirth or a woman’s desire to use her vagina to birth is no more sacred than another’s right to privacy or informed consent or right to refuse within the containment walls of the labor room. These issues all matter, not just because of their interconnectedness or ability to bleed into one another, but because they all affect pregnant women.

Let’s stop caring about the issues we face, as individuals, and start caring about the issues that WE face, collectively.

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  1. says

    When you work with damaged neonates you can understand why drug tests are done. Hospitals need to find a better way to approach the problem. If a test was done on everyone as part of the booking package then women would not feel picked on. Hospitals know what causes false positives so women could avoid these before the test if they know it is being done. Hospital staff are not there to judge, just to give good care to both mum and baby. Ann.

    • Profile photo of Kathi Valeii says

      I disagree, Ann. I think pregnant women ARE picked on. Period. Within that oppression lies an even more classified structure, wherein, the most oppressed even within that population fare worst – they are discriminated against, suffer the highest forms of indignities and abuses and have the worst health outcomes. But that’s an aside, really. I’m merely nodding to the fact that drug testing now is selective, but I’ll tell you what, blanket testing of all women does not level the playing field. Unless we’re interested in leveling it to the ground so that all women are equally trampled on.

      Drug testing women in pregnancy and labor and then offering punitive measures like CPS investigations, or in some cases, criminalization, does not address the desire for healthy outcomes. It merely serves to shame and punish those women with addictions. And in it’s wake creates the kind of stigma and fear that keep women from asking for the help that they need. Once we start caring about women as much as we care about the babies they carry, then we’ll start seeing compassionate interventions that hold respect and healing for both the child and the mother.

  2. Ramona says

    I have a different perspective on this issue that some might want to consider. I am the mother of a child of drug abuse. She came to us at the age of six months due to extreme neglect, was our foster child for a few months before her birth mother chose to terminate her own parental rights rather than go to rehab. This is the classic scenario that most people view. Look at this woman who was so addicted to drugs that she couldn’t / wouldn’t take care of her child! This is the scenario that everyone points out that we need to protect children against.

    Now, let me give you her side of the story (as corroborated by her relatives). Her parents divorced when she was young and her father let them have nothing to do with their mother. When she was young, he remarried to an abusive woman. The two daughters of his first marriage were abused, and then T, the birth mother, was thrown out of the house at the age of 12 to live on the streets. Her younger sister was put into foster care. Living on the streets, T did what she had to to survive, and became addicted to cocaine. After years of living with this addiction, with no family support or help, she became pregnant at the age of 32. She tried hard not to do drugs, and succeeded only part way. Her baby was born exposed, but not addicted to drugs. She struggled between caring for her baby, and drugs, but she tried to find places and people who would care for the baby before she left to do drugs. This gave the baby very little stability, but she was trying to make sure she was cared for. Remember that she had no experience, no knowledge, and her only help was a state nurse who visited once a month and told her things like, “Don’t give the baby sugar water any more.”

    When the baby was taken into foster care (not from her, from someone with whom she had left the baby) she was told that rehab was the condition of the baby’s return. She broke. She cried that she had no way to afford it, and no support in it. She could see nothing to do. However, she also knew that we were willing to adopt the baby, that we loved the baby, and so, she made the choice to give her baby the best home she could, and in love, terminated her own parental rights so that the baby could have a home.

    I have been frustrated more than once by the special needs that my daughter struggles with due to the drugs, but I NEVER doubted the love that her birth mother felt for her. T was a lost child still. She never had the love, the care, the aid that she needed to get herself out of the dark hole she was in. Instead of addressing drugs punitively, she needed HELP. She needed compassion and aid. Not prison, but rehab. I wonder what a difference it would have made in her young life if rehab were offered as a health issue as it is in several European countries. If drugs were not criminal, but viewed as a problem that needs help.

    I despise drugs. I struggle with their ill effects every day of my life. I do no despise T, nor do I despise my daughter and the difficulties she has as a result.

    T admitted to using drugs during her pregnancy. All the tests in the world would not have spared my daughter her difficulties. To treat everyone at the lowest common denominator, no matter how much you know about the dangers of drug use is despicable. If you cannot offer aid, only condemnation, keep your nose out.

    • Profile photo of Kathi Valeii says

      Thank you for sharing such a real and compassionate point-of-view, Ramona. Absolutely, we continue to fail women, and in turn, children, when we address this issue punitively.

  3. Lindsey says

    I was a young first time mum, and fell under “the occasional pot smoker” description. I specifically remember discussing with my OB the effects of smoking marijuana while pregnant and the fact that there was no legitimate proof that it is harmful whatsoever to the fetus. Either way, I was trying my best to be open and honest, and straight forward in order to learn more and make an informed decision. Unfortunately for me, my OB at the time agreed that it wasn’t the health effects that were the issue, just that it is illegal to smoke marijuana pregnant or not. She did not go into it any further, in fact, we discussed nicotine, alcohol, nutrition, and exercise, in much more depth in that same conversation.
    When I delivered my baby I was on Medicaid and they unknowingly performed drug screens on me and my newborn child. I had been in labor for 36 hours, and sent home from the hospital multiple times, and yes, I smoked a few hits off a joint in the comfort of my own home, since they wouldn’t admit me yet or help me with my labor pains, etc. and I was struggling, under educated, and scared.
    My baby however, did not test positive for any illegal substances, thank goodness. I will never forget the moment the nurses came into my hospital room and asked my family to leave so that we could discuss “something,” at which point I refused that they leave, and was shocked that they revealed they had drug tested me in front of my entire family, and that I tested positive for marijuana. I will never forget the disappointment in everyone’s eyes, and the embarrassment and shame I felt. They immediately removed my daughter from my arms and I was sent to some sort of “recovery room” that I was deserted in for hours and hours. Every time I did see a staff member I asked about and begged for my daughter to be returned to me. After interrogating me relentlessly and doing God knows what to and with my newborn baby, without my consent or knowledge, they eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, finally returned my baby to my arms. For months I had to deal with social workers coming to my home to find…guess what…NOTHING. I merely made a simple, stupid, regrettable mistake, that caused me and my baby unnecessary stress beyond explanation. I will never, ever, forget this experience, and I feel for every woman that has ever gone through this testing without consent whether they tested positive or negative, it is an extreme violation in my opinion and now I am scared to death of OB’s and could never trust anyone in the health care system again. This is just a small fraction of the story. The way they treated me even during my delivery, I now believe, was a reflection of the drug screen as well. They convinced me I needed to have an epidural, only allowed me to “push” for five minutes when I wasn’t even ready, had twenty-ish people in the room all eyes on me, talk about being scared, gave me a third degree laceration, and sent me home with Motrin. My in home nurse was so disgusted when she came for the follow up that she personally called the hospital, demanded a true pain reliever, and picked it up herself for me because I literally could not move. The delivery of my first child should have been the most amazing moment and experience in my life, but it turned out to be the most horrifying experience I have ever had and I have never forgotten a single horrifying moment, nasty glare, or the repetitive deceitful manipulations that took place, thanks to a hit off of a joint of a natural herb I was treated like a full blown criminal.
    I just want to add I went on to have two more children, one of them completely naturally and assisted by midwives. I grew up, researched like crazy, and became educated. I made informed decisions such as standing up for my babies’ rights to genital autonomy, breastfeeding on demand and allowing them to self-wean as nature intended, and continue to learn something new everyday about the ridiculousness our society lives by these days. It is a scary, scary world. These unnecessary, cesarean and circumcision performing, formula and vaccine pushing hospitals, need to take a look at what they are doing to parents and babies today. Our society has a very long way to go. Thanks for listening, sorry for the lack of paragraphs, I didn’t realize I was going to write this to begin with, it just happened!!! Take care, love your article, thank you so much for writing this. I hope my POV helps someone, anyone. Thank you.

    • Profile photo of Kathi Valeii says

      Thanks for sharing such a painful story. When we start categorizing women who use drugs as “the worst of the worst” in an effort to garnish support for these measures, it’s important to hear stories like yours and how these implications hurt so many women and babies.


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