Motherhood, Poverty, and the Right to Privacy

Khiara M. Bridges offers a new theory for the oversight and regulation of poor mothers in The Poverty of Privacy Rights.

Professor of Law and Anthropology Khiara M. Bridges

Professor of Law and Anthropology Khiara M. Bridges wants to change the conversation we are having about poor mothers’ privacy rights. Her new book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights, examines the rights to privacy granted in the Constitution and poor mothers’ experiences with them. Legal scholars often talk about the privacy rights of poor mothers as being weak, or constantly violated. Instead, Bridges proposes a new way to frame the discussion, arguing that poor mothers have been “disenfranchised of their rights to privacy.”

Published by Stanford University Press, The Poverty of Privacy Rights is an outgrowth of Bridges’s first book. For Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization, she studied women’s negotiations with Medicaid bureaucracy in order to have healthy pregnancies. “While I was doing fieldwork at a public hospital in New York, I observed that the state is all around poor mothers,” she says. “This book analyzes legally what I analyzed ethnographically in my first book, and offers a theory of how it has come to be that the state can occupy all corners of poor mothers’ lives—both when they receive public benefits and when they do not.”

Khiara Bridges symposium on November 20In order for a pregnant woman to gain access to Medicaid, she must submit herself to a review process that not only assesses her physical health, but her “nutritional status,” “health education status,” and “psychosocial status.” That psychosocial assessment includes questions about a woman’s social support system, history of previous pregnancies, substance use, as well as housing, education, employment, and financial resources.

In a vivid example from the book’s introduction, Bridges includes the transcript of a recorded conversation that makes explicit the types of intimate information pregnant women seeking state aid are asked to give away. The woman’s conversation with the state actor “touched on many highly sensitive topics, including her previous romantic relationship, which tragically involved violence severe enough to land her in a shelter; the healthiness of her relationship with the father of her children; her earnings capacity; and the earnings capacity of the father of her children.”

The Poverty of Privacy Rights, by Khiara BridgesThe Poverty of Privacy Rights explores three types of privacy rights: reproductive privacy, which grants individuals the right to determine whether or not they will become parents; informational privacy, or the ability of individuals to keep personal information from being aggregated and disseminated to third parties; and family privacy, which allows parents to rear children in the way they want and to instill in them the values they choose. The book argues that poor mothers have been denied each of these types of privacy rights.

The justification for the state’s presence in the life of a poor mother is legitimate: to protect the welfare of the child. Ostensibly, a poor woman’s history with, for example, drug abuse or domestic violence may put her at risk of harming her child or exposing the child to someone who may harm them. However, Bridges points out that if the state were really interested in protecting children from abuse and neglect, it would be asking the same questions of affluent women who are not typically exposed to these invasions by private insurance.

“If, for example, there is a higher risk that a child will be abused or neglected in a family in which one individual is experiencing intimate violence, that wouldn’t just be true for poor families,” she says. “But the state has not erected an elaborate bureaucratic apparatus to take an accounting of the histories of all people who are interested in having children, or who are pregnant, or who are parenting. The state has only created this for poor people.”

Rather, Bridges argues that the moral construction of poverty—the idea that people are poor not because of macro-, large-scale, or structural reasons, but because of inherent behavioral or ethical flaws—is the true motivation for this surveillance of poor parents. If people are poor because they have ethical, moral, or behavioral deficiencies, then the state is justified in only surveilling and regulating poor parents, because those parents, by definition, have these behavioral deficiencies that might negatively impact their children.

This framing of the problem “goes a long way toward explaining why we’ve come to respect and value the privacy rights of those with a little bit of money in our society, while completely stripping those without money of the ability to shield themselves from state oversight,” she says.

There are no easy answers to empower poor mothers to enjoy the privacy rights formally granted them in the Constitution. “A lot of times, as lawyers, we tend to think of legal solutions: We need the right laws, or the right interpretation of the Constitution,” Bridges says. “But I think law reflects culture, so the answer I propose in the book is cultural change. We need to change the narrative circulating in society around why people are poor, and why people want to be parents despite their poverty. If we had these different stories, we might have different laws.”

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