- The website of PRA

Home : Conservative Agendas : Women and Reproductive Rights



Section Objective:

This section will discuss the role the State and private organizations play in punishing and controlling reproduction, prosecuting women who use drugs while pregnant, and expanding the right-wing fetal rights movement.

Chapter Outline

Download entire "Women and Reproductive Rights" chapter
of Defending Justice
(PDF, 212KB)


Throughout U.S. history, government policies, government agencies, and private organizations have sought to control women's sexuality and reproduction. Many institutions have targeted women of color and lower-income White women for control, limiting the numbers of children they have and devaluing their roles and needs as mothers. As prisons and the entire criminal justice system have become more powerful and pervasive as institutions of social control, they too have played an increasing role in controlling and policing women's reproduction, including arresting pregnant women who use drugs. Because poor women and women of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and in prison, reproductive control policies in these arenas affect these women even more heavily.

The prosecution of women for using drugs when they are pregnant illustrates several important trends in contemporary U.S. politics: designing policies to punish instead of provide assistance; focusing on blame and individual responsibility instead of collective solutions to social problems; and using the criminal justice system to deal with what are really complex social, psychological, and medical problems. Increasing money for law enforcement and incarceration instead of social services, and shifting services like drug treatment into the criminal justice system, only makes it more difficult for people with addictions to get the treatment they need to stay out of the system in the first place.

Being sent to prison negatively affects a woman's reproductive rights--from the ability to get an abortion to the ability to have or keep one's children. The assumption that women in prison are unworthy of parental rights fits into a long history of suppressing poor women of color's rights to be mothers. This attitude is exemplified by Project Prevention/C.R.A.C.K., an organization that pays women who use drugs to become sterilized and recruits directly at jails, prisons and drug treatment centers. The greater involvement of the prison system also ensures that women whose reproduction might once have been labeled "irresponsible" will now be criminalized.

The Right resolutely opposes reproductive rights. In addition to opposing legal abortion, the Right promotes policies that reward the formation of patriarchal, heterosexual, two-parent families and penalize, or at best ignore, other family structures. But historically, there has been little overlap between progressive criminal justice activists and those fighting for reproductive rights. Complicating the matter are different tendencies within the reproductive rights movement: a mainstream perspective focusing on "individual choice" and "privacy," led largely by White middle-class women, and another perspective focused on social justice, which defines reproductive rights as the right to have and rear children as well as the right not to, spearheaded largely by lower income women, women of color, and their allies. As the criminal justice system expands and the Right's law-and-order and anti-reproductive rights agendas converge, it will take a broad-based movement to effectively oppose this threat to justice.

Chapter Contents

Pages 125-148 of Defending Justice, edited by Palak Shah

  • Punishment, Control and the Construction of Unfit/Fit Mothers by Rachel Roth, Ph.D.
  • Role of the State: Criminal Prosecution of Pregnant Women
    • What Happened to Regina McKnight?
    • Myths about Pregnant Women and Drugs
  • Role of the Right: Project Prevention (formerly known as C.R.A.C.K)
    • Excerpts from Project Prevention's Website
    • Analysis of Project Prevention/C.R.A.C.K.
  • UVVA: The Intersection of Tough on Crime and the Anti-Abortion Movement
  • Organizing Advice: Resisting Partisan Politics, a Q&A with The Rebecca Project





Defending Justice is a publication of Political Research Associates (PRA), an independent nonprofit research center that exposes the Right and larger oppressive movements and institutions. PRA produces research and analytic tools to inform and support progressive activism.

Copyright © 2005 Political Research Associates
Copyright Information

Political Research Associates • 1310 Broadway, Suite 201 • Somerville, MA 02144
Voice: 617.666.5300 • Fax: 617.666.6622

Order Defending Justice Now! PRA