The Rules of Maternity
69 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2015 Last revised: 15 Aug 2018
Date Written: September 14, 2015
This article examines a diverse body of laws and regulations speaking to reproductive rights, healthcare, criminal punishment of drug use, termination of parental rights, and more in order to unearth the rules of maternity: guidance provided both obliquely and explicitly by the law’s coercive power telling women both how and who should mother. Rule 1 begins in pregnancy, with the message that “your body is your child’s vessel.” Every choice that a pregnant woman makes becomes a source of potential harm to her child, and thus of potential punishment through both civil and criminal law. Rule 2 explains one way women should attempt to avoid such liability, by following the maxim that “doctor knows best.” To question medical authority or have preferences other than following doctor’s orders is to needlessly risk the health of a pregnancy or a child, and is evidence of bad mothering. After the child’s birth, the mother remains responsible for the people who enter a child’s life, leading to rule 3, “the buck stops with you.” Rule 4 provides examples of the tightropes that mothers must walk: be nurturing, but not too nurturing. Breastfeed, but not for too long. Be protective, but not overprotective. “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Finally, the rules of maternity create an aspirational maternity, one that excludes women deemed undesirable as mothers, because of class, race, past actions, and so on. Rule 5 specifies that “only some women need apply” for motherhood; women who have already been judged as bad mothers should not be legally permitted to reproduce.
Keywords: gender, family law, criminal law
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