The Handmaid’s Tale comes to life in Alabama. Women must heed the warning | Zoe Williams

The ludicrous indictment of Marshae Jones for the manslaughter of her unborn child is an extreme example of a disturbing pattern

Marshae Jones was five months pregnant when another woman, Ebony Jemison, shot her in the stomach, in an Alabama town called Pleasant Grove. The 27-year-old Jones survived but the foetus, hit by the bullet, did not. Jemison successfully pleaded self-defence, since her gun was drawn in the middle of a fight that Jones reportedly started and was winning – according to an unnamed police source – until the gun was fired.

Since the shooter was exonerated, it seems odd still to be preoccupied with who started the fight. But this is one of two key elements in the extraordinary case against Jones, who was indicted for the manslaughter of her unborn child. As a pregnant woman, Jones’s alleged decision to provoke an altercation represented wilful endangerment. Since the law in Alabama confers “personhood” on a foetus, Jones was treated as she would have been had she endangered a child. Her lawyers have yet to decide whether or not to build a challenge to that idea of “personhood” into their case.

Compelling and shocking as this case is on a human level, it is also fascinating for what it tells us politically. The abortion debate has historically centred on what it means for a woman’s autonomy to have, or not have, control over her reproductive choices. Yet while that was playing out along traditional lines, a much more profound curtailment of women’s rights, focused on the foetus, has been laying down legal and cultural foundations.

The 21st century has been marked by an obsession with the foetal environment, and the many threats a mother’s activity can, wittingly or not, pose to her unborn baby. The list includes alcohol, chemicals, drugs, stress and attendant emotions, new furniture, blue cheese, and so on. Certain US states, with Alabama at the vanguard, have rushed to legislate accordingly. So in certain states, a prospective mother can be prosecuted for being addicted to heroin, for drinking during pregnancy, and even for drinking before she knew she was pregnant. Under Alabama’s 2006 “chemical endangerment” statute, a woman who was planning to get an abortion was one of hundreds charged for using drugs while in charge of a foetus.

With bitter irony, these laws deterred women with drug problems from seeking any prenatal care at all – the worst outcome of all for the foetus. As the policing of pregnant female bodies has expanded, from both scientific and cultural points of view, women are suddenly subject to a completely different standard of evidence. Risks have been hypothesised using bizarre methodologies: in the early 2000s, the American sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong examined the evidence for the detrimental effects of stress on a pregnancy. The only demonstrable correlation was between a profound stress event – the death of an existing child, or spouse – during pregnancy, and a negative outcome. From that, conclusions were drawn about lesser emotional turmoil – parking tickets and suchlike – that were completely without evidential foundation. Alcohol during pregnancy, meanwhile, is now routinely forbidden in public health advice, including from the NHS, despite studies suggesting the evidence for complete prohibition simply isn’t there.

As British sociologists have noted: “Policymakers … formalised the connection between uncertainty and danger.” We’ve been witnessing, incrementally and on both sides of the Atlantic, the development of a totally new construction of risk, in which the responsible would-be mother is as vigilant against the unknown dangers as she is against the knowns, and only the delinquent mother would question the veracity of these warnings. The weakness of the evidence is part of the point: it underscores a woman’s respect for authority, if she will submit to advice without interrogating it.

Feminists have spent a long time discussing this new construction of maternal responsibility in its wider social context: why were pregnant women becoming more rigidly policed, and the advice to them more restrictive? Was this just another late-capitalist manoeuvre, to recast every misfortune as an individual failing?

While this may be the case, it misses the glaringly obvious misogyny. When a mother is recast as a potential threat to her baby, her body – as the only environment in which that foetus can survive – becomes the property of whoever styles themselves as the foetus’s protector. Nothing that happens to her – from a miscarriage to being shot in the stomach – is her event, but rather can be viewed as her failure to steward and protect a body that is no longer her own.

As an instrument of subjugation, this is as profound as any trope of female disempowerment in dystopian literature. The Handmaid’s Tale has already arrived, in Alabama. And feminists everywhere need to see Marshae Jones’s battle as their own.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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