Unshackling Black Motherhood

When stories about the prosecutions of women for using drugs during pregnancy first appeared in newspapers in 1989, I immediately suspected that most of the defendants were Black women. Charging someone with a crime for giving birth to a baby seemed to fit into the legacy of devaluing Black mothers. I was so sure of this intuition that I embarked on my first major law review article based on the premise that the prosecutions perpetuated Black women’s subordination. My hunch turned out to be right: a memorandum prepared by the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project documented cases brought against pregnant women as of October 1990 and revealed that thirty-two of fifty-two defendants were Black. By the middle of 1992, the number of prosecutions had increased to more than 160 in 24 states. About 75% were brought against women of color.