Genetic Research and Social Control

The potential for medicine to act as a form of social control continues to grow as scientists learn more about human genes—and as the public increasingly be- lieves that genes hold the key to health and illness. The shift toward increasingly defining genes as the cause of human disease, behavior, and differences is known as geneticization (Shostak, Conrad, and Horwitz, 2008; Weiner). Geneticization is a form of medicalization.

Medical Social Control and Fetal Rights

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In October 2006, 20-year-old Tiffany Hitson gave birth to a healthy baby girl. The next day, after traces of marijuana and methamphetamine were found in her baby during routine testing, Hitson was arrested for “chemically endangering” her child. Hitson spent most of the next year in state prison.

Tiffany was not alone. Over the last decade, hundreds of pregnant women— most poor and nonwhite—have faced criminal sanctions or been forced to endure medical treatments. These actions reflect a growing tendency among doctors, lawyers, and the general public to view mother and fetus as separate beings, with separable and sometimes conflicting rights, and to see the fetus rather than the mother as obstetricians’ primary patient. Given that doctors have an ethical and legal obligation to protect children from parents who abuse them, should doctors have a similar obligation to protect fetuses even if it means superseding mothers’ wishes?

Those who argue in favor of medical intervention find it illogical to protect children from bodily harm after birth but to deny them protection that might ensure their health before birth. Children born prematurely, addicted to drugs, or with birth defects because their mothers did not follow medical advice may lead short, painful lives or may survive with mental or physical disabilities. In addition, caring for these children costs hospitals and taxpayers money. Those costs alone, one could argue, give the medical and legal systems the right to intervene when women endanger their fetuses.

Others, however, have raised several objections to placing fetal rights above mothers’ wishes. First, critics question whether medical intervention really is necessary. For example, almost all well-structured research studies on mothers’ drug use during pregnancy have found that it causes little if any long-term harm to children. Second, drug withdrawal also can endanger fetuses, as can threats of legal sanctions that discourage pregnant women from seeking health care.

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