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November 27, 2009

NAPW Advocating on Behalf of Precious Women

Last weekend I saw the movie Precious. This movie, about "an overweight, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child" is a soaring tribute to human dignity and, for me, captures the reasons why NAPW takes the cases we do.

Recently, NAPW chose to work on behalf of R.G. -- an African American teenager from Mississippi who became pregnant when she was fifteen. She suffered a stillbirth one month after turning sixteen. What was the state's response? They arrested her and charged her with murder.

NAPW learned about the case shortly before R.G. was scheduled to go on trial as an adult. We learned that her mother's efforts to obtain help from other organizations had been rebuffed. NAPW reached out to her local counsel and offered our assistance.

The state claims the stillbirth was caused by R.G.'s cocaine use. Never mind that researchers have not been able to link cocaine use to pregnancy loss. Never mind that no country in the world has passed a law making it a crime for a teenager to suffer a stillbirth. And never mind that a Mississippi Supreme Court judge has expressed serious concerns about the qualifications of the doctor hired by the state to prepare the autopsy report.

NAPW knows that, like the people in the movie Precious, the people who reported R.G. and arrested her -- the people who assumed that the criminal laws could legitimately be applied to her -- judged her. They could not see beyond the color of her skin, or the fact that she was pregnant at age 15 or that she was a "drug-user." Every woman we have represented, every woman we have worked on behalf of (African-American, White, Latina, Native American) has been, to some extent, written off like Precious, whose dark skin, overweight body, and pregnancy was all that most people could see.

But NAPW sees something different. We see past the drug war and anti-abortion rhetoric. We see beyond the racism and the politics of blame. We know that each of the women we work to help is a precious human being who deserves NAPW's support. These are women whose capacity for love, learning, giving, growing and healing never comes as a surprise to us. See the movie Precious and you will have some idea of what I mean.

The cases we work on also have huge legal implications - potentially setting devastating precedent that could be used to punish abortion and stillbirths as murder and pregnant women as child abusers. These cases could dramatically intensify the war on drugs, extending it to women's wombs and drastically expanding the scope of the criminal justice system to include all pregnant women.

Last week, NAPW worked with committed Mississippi defense lawyers Carrie A. Jourdan and Robert B. McDuff to file a motion to dismiss the charges against R.G. We told our allies and experts in the field about the case. Attorneys at the Drug Policy Alliance and the Southern Poverty Law Center's Mississippi Youth Justice Project filed an amicus brief on behalf of numerous local and national health and advocacy organizations explaining that the prosecution of R.G. is not supported as a matter of science, is inappropriate as a matter of public health, and is unfounded as a matter of law.

Contributions to NAPW helps us represent and support precious women. For this work, for the privilege of doing this work, I am thankful.