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Can Motherhood be Criminalized?

August 12, 2011

Should a bad mother be prohibited from having more children?

Twenty year-old Felicia Salazar admitted to a court that she failed to provide protection and medical treatment for her 19-month-old daughter. The baby was beaten by her father and suffered broken bones and other injuries. She recovered and is in foster care. The father was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

But when Salazar—who had no previous criminal record—appeared for sentencing, Judge Charlie Baird gave her a suspended prison sentence and 10 years probation with what he called the “reasonable condition” not to conceive or bear any more children during that time.

“She has a fundamental right to reproduce,” said the judge, “so I couldn’t order her to be sterilized. But she can be forced to forfeit certain fundamental rights.” The judge added that he is “not even preventing her from having intimate sexual relations. I’m only preventing her from becoming pregnant.”

Legal experts questioned the constitutionality of the sentence, while others debated its enforceability. “If Salazar becomes pregnant,” asked a law writer, “must she choose among concealing the pregnancy, abortion, or incarceration? Alternately, could Judge Baird order her to carry a pregnancy to term but then give the child up for adoption?”

The prosecutor, who had not sought the sentence, was surprised. “I think when the average person hears a story of a mom who failed to protect a child,” she said, “their instinct is that she doesn’t deserve to have a child. But we don’t get to decide that for her.”

Tell us what you think: In an effort to prevent future child abuse, should the court be responsible for deciding if a mother can have more children? What about the father in this case—should he be under court order not to father more children?

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