Race and Class

Drug use crosses all race and class lines. Women of color, however, have been particularly targeted for harsh and punitive prosecutorial responses and account for the majority of those arrested for continuing pregnancies to term in spite of a drug problem.

While this disproportionality has been true nationwide, nowhere is it more apparent than in South Carolina. In Charleston, South Carolina the Medical University Hospital instituted a policy of reporting and facilitating the arrest of pregnant African American patients who tested positive for cocaine. African American women were dragged out of this predominantly Black hospital in chains and shackles, evoking sharp modern images of African-American women in slavery. There, medical staff working in collaboration with the prosecutor and police, in effect, conducted an experiment to see if threats of arrest and arrest would be an effective tool in reducing pregnant women's drug use. The subjects of that experiment: poor black women.

In 1994, the National Institutes of Health found this experiment to violate the laws concerning research on human subjects. The Office of Civil Rights also investigated the hospital for violating Title VI prohibitions on race discrimination; that hospital agreed in a settlement with OCR to stop arresting patients. In 2001the United States Supreme Court held that the policy of secretly searching pregnant patients for evidence of drug use violates their Fourth Amendment Consitutional right to be free of unwarranted searches and seizures.

The prosecutions of pregnant women cases make for a potent cocktail mixing racism, sexism and unchecked myths and prejudices about drugs. As one judge from South Carolina espoused at a sentencing hearing of a woman who admitted to using cocaine while pregnant:

You know, we've got enough trouble with normal children. Now this little baby's born with crack. When he is seven years old, they have an attention span that long [holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart]. They can't run. They just run around in class like a little rat. Not just black ones. White ones too.
In many instances, these cases reveal that judges are not just concerned with women having drug-exposed babies, but with having any children at all. Sterilization or forced Norplant implantation often come up as proposed solutions to the problem of substance abuse and pregnancy. This is especially true when the presumed population of addicts is women of color. As the judge in another South Carolina case freely noted: he was "sick and tired of these girls having these bastard babies on crack cocaine."

NAPW uses these cases as opportunities to address the myths about and attacks on black motherhood in America so well articulated by Dorothy Roberts’ book, Killing the Black Body, and to engage the traditional civil rights community in critical reproductive rights and reproductive health advocacy.

In general, the justifications for prohibition and regulation of both drugs and reproduction have often been based on various forms of stigma and prejudice, including but not limited to those based on race, ethnicity, and gender. Laws prohibiting and regulating drugs, abortion, and contraception are generally enforced disproportionality against low-income people and people of color. This section includes articles, resources and links that address the very class and race based ways in which punitive responses to pregnancy, drug use, and closely related issue such as HIV infection play out.


March 23, 2009

At the request of activists in Tennessee, NAPW analyzed two 2009 bills in Tennessee concerning pregnant women. Pursuant to Tennessee bills SB1065 and HB0890, pregnant women who meet certain criteria would be tested for alcohol and drugs in order to encourage them to seek immediate treatment for an alcohol-related or drug- related problem. Our analysis of the bills makes clear that this legislation lacked foundation in evidence based research and would undermine, rather than promote maternal, fetal, and child health. It is our understanding that the bill was withdrawn in March of 2009.

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South Carolina: First in the Nation for Arresting African-American Pregnant Women

January 13, 2003

Briefing Paper to: Democratic Presidential Candidates

Pregnant Drug Users: Scapegoats of the Reagan/Bush and Clinton Era Economics

January 13, 2001

By: Sheigla Murphy and Paloma Sales


In this paper we present analyses of two National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded studies entitled, "An Ethnographic Study of Pregnancy and Drug Use" (Rosenbaum and Murphy 1991-94) and "An Ethnography of Victimization, Pregnancy and Drug Use," (Murphy 1995-98). Our goal is to explicate the ways in which pregnant drug users in the San Francisco Bay Area experienced, coped with and protected themselves from increasing stigmatization, abuse and punishment while enduring a period of fiscal retrenchment of government assistance programs.