Women in Criminal Justice Article Review: Bagley and Merlo

Bagley, K., & Merlo, A. V. (2006). Regulating and controlling women’s bodies. In A. V. Merlo & J. M. Pollock (Eds.), Women, law, and social control (2 ed., pp. 64-87). Boston: Pearson Allyn Bacon.

1.      Main Thesis: Bagley and Merlo argue that official control over women’s bodies—particularly during pregnancy—has increased significantly in the last decade. However, they say, this increased control has been for punitive purposes; it has not resulted in better care or programming for women, pregnant or otherwise.

2.      Body of Evidence: After outlining their argument that women’s bodies are disproportionately singled out for public/official control, the authors discuss ways in which this occurs. They highlight several cases in which pregnant women were prosecuted based on their status as pregnant. For example, Regina McKnight is serving a 12-year sentence for the death of her fetus, despite the fact that there is no evidence her cocaine use killed it and despite the fact that a third-trimester abortion would have resulted in a maximum sentence of two years (p. 67-68). Clearly, the intention of such a sentence is to increase regulation and control of women, not to protect fetuses. The authors provide several other examples and introduce the idea of the slippery slope, asking, “to what standard of care should pregnant women be held? Should pregnant women stop drinking coffee, stop riding motorcycles, play doubles rather than singles tennis …?” (p. 69). The authors state that reproductive laws—including coercive contraception laws—have disproportionately targeted crack cocaine users (over other types of drug users), poor women, and women of color. Next, the authors give extended detail about how women are affected by HIV/AIDS. They discuss the gap in quality of care given to white women versus black women, who are disproportionately affected by AIDS due to a number of social causes, and the ethical issues surrounding mandatory testing of pregnant women and/or their newborns. Finally, the authors point out that rehabilitation and support services for AIDS-affected and substance-addicted pregnant women are more likely to produce social reform than continued punitive legislation.

3.      Conclusions: The authors argue that it is unfair to punish women for offenses resulting from a flawed system that women are unequipped to deal with. Rather than focus on increased control of pregnancy, they advocate the establishment of sex-abuse prevention programs (because women who have been abused are more likely to be HIV-positive and/or drug users), awareness and rehabilitation programs, and programs to help women become good mothers. The authors push for refocusing on the mother instead of focusing only on the fetus.

4.      My Conclusions: I enjoyed this chapter’s focus on legal precedent as reflective of social beliefs about control of pregnancy. This topic relates to my research, in which I’ve discovered that some states have tried to pass coercive legislation requiring women to view an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion; I suspect that this law, like those Bagley and Merlo discuss, will disproportionately affect particular populations. My one trifle with this chapter is that I think it does not discuss enough the agency that women do have. That is, while I believe that our flawed cultural/social/legal system produces much of the “crime” described herein, I also think that we must recognize women’s ability to make and take responsibility for their choices.


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