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Roberts, Dorothy. “Unshackling Black Motherhood.” Michigan Law Review 95, no. 4 (1997): 938–64.


This article draws connections between the historical devaluation of black motherhood and current prosecution of mainly poor, black women for drug use during pregnancy. Using as a case study the South Carolina interagency agreement, which facilitated immediate arrest for pregnant women or women in labor testing positive for cocaine in a public hospital, the author uncovers the thinly veiled racism underlying the prosecution of mothers of so-called ‘crack babies.’ This interagency agreement, later stopped for ethical violations by the Center for Disease Control, released private medical information to the court system to be used coercively against patients under the guise of research. The author delves into the racist stereotypes that fueled a misinformed media frenzy around crack cocaine use and pregnancy, contributing to the criminalization of mostly poor, black mothers. Engaging historical analysis, the author situates the prosecution of women for drug use during pregnancy within the legacy of biased intervention to control and punish black women’s reproduction in the U.S. The author argues that while legal pushback against these policies has been somewhat successful, it has largely failed to directly address the racist intentions and implementation of the policies. In closing, the author highlights strategies for unshackling black motherhood, including prosecuting white women in privileged positions for similar offenses (i.e., tobacco, alcohol, or drug use during pregnancy). Wins for these women could set legal precedent that can be used to defend the rights of black mothers prosecuted for cocaine use, who must overcome the same racial prejudice and stereotypes in court that drove the arresting conditions. Offering an in-depth exploration of the legal and medical context of the prosecution of mainly black mothers for cocaine use, the author systematically exposes the racism fuelling the policy. Tracing the story back to discriminatory testing of women in the hospital, the author bolsters her argument with research showing that there is no significant difference in drug use among women of different racial and economic backgrounds during pregnancy; however, there is a significant difference in testing and prosecution patterns. Furthermore, medical research shows that proper nutrition and prenatal care can offset harm to the fetus exposed to crack cocaine, suggesting that fears around a ‘crack baby epidemic’ are unfounded and, furthermore, prosecuting pregnant women does not achieve the ends of healthier mothers and infants. Ending with a series of strategies to move toward reproductive freedom for black women, this article offers both evidence of injustice and information to advocate for change. A crucial piece in the reproductive justice literature, this article is both scholarly and colloquial, appealing to a wide range of students, activists and parishioners. 


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Legislation/policy   Race/ethnicity: African American/Black   Criminal justice/incarceration   Pregnancy   History