Review: ‘Policing the Womb: Invisible Women’

March 18, 2023

From the March-April 2023 issue of News & Letters

by Adele

Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood, by Michele Goodwin, written two years before the overturn of Roe v. Wade, remains relevant. Goodwin describes the increasing wave of legislation regulating pregnancy and criminalizing miscarriages, stillbirths and supposed “endangerment” of the fetus.


One purpose of so-called “fetal protection laws” (FPLs) is to chip away at abortion rights, but they also have devastating effects on women with wanted pregnancies. They target poor women and women of color but will eventually affect all women. Goodwin, an ACLU lawyer, relates the history of numerous laws and the little-known stories of women impacted by them.

State interference in reproduction has roots in slavery and the early 20th century eugenics movement. In 1927, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional for the government to sterilize citizens considered “unfit” to parent. Goodwin shows this has no scientific merit and was often used to sterilize young, Black women. She also traces the justification for today’s FPLs to the 1990s myth that babies “born addicted to crack cocaine” would form a “criminal underclass.”

In reality, babies born to mothers using crack have no symptoms or developmental issues. Yet today, they still might be placed in foster care. Mothers are still arrested, even when pregnancy prompts them to get prenatal care and help for addictions. Doctors and nurses began the previously unheard-of practice of turning over medical records to the police.

The 1990s organization paying Black women to be sterilized or use long-acting contraception is still in operation. In recent years, women are offered plea deals of shortened sentences for drug offenses if they agree to sterilization. Legislators generally ignore that affluent, pregnant, white women are more likely to use recreational or prescription drugs. They ignore the health risks and high miscarriage rate of assisted reproductive technology.


FPLs were often originally intended to protect pregnant women from crime or domestic violence. But they are now used to arrest women who have accidents such as falling down stairs. Since embryos might now be viewed as equal to women, self-induced abortion is increasingly criminalized with prison sentences.

Women have been court-ordered to have bed rest, civil confinements, and Caesarian sections. Over 30 states prohibit removing a brain-dead pregnant woman from life support, even if the fetus has no chance of survival.

The mostly male, white legislators and prosecutors seem unaware that miscarriage and stillbirth are common outcomes of pregnancy, even under ideal conditions. There are also numerous health hazards out of pregnant women’s control. Toxic waste processing centers and dumps are located in poor neighborhoods, often of people of color, causing clusters of serious illnesses.

Goodwin reveals numerous ways FPLs do not, as claimed, protect women, children, or society but are counterproductive. Women are denied lifesaving healthcare like cancer treatments. They are drug tested at taxpayers’ expense to receive state benefits but rarely test positive. Incarcerated women give birth shackled, in solitary confinement and unsanitary conditions.

Arrest records can prevent mothers from getting jobs, housing, and higher education. Drug treatment has much better outcomes than incarceration, which has a negative psychological impact on mothers and children. The U.S. incarcerates more women than any other country and has the highest maternal mortality in the developed world, especially high for Black women.

Goodwin shows the importance of framing reproductive justice as more than abortion rights. She discusses how laws and those interpreting and enforcing them create cultures oppressing women and indoctrinating men into normalizing violence and domination. She proposes a Reproductive Justice Bill of Rights as a concept or actual federal document.

This book is important in exposing the harmfulness of scapegoating marginalized women and creating a way forward where everyone can thrive.

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