Thursday, 3 February 2011

Isabelle Brown is a person

Her name is Isabelle Brown, she's 35. In her picture she is wearing a red t-shirt, with a black longer sleeved top underneath; her hair is cut around her face; she's not looking at the camera. I don't know anything about her. I don't know her as a person.

Neither did her lawyer Tony Bouchier when he decided she wasn't a person, but an incubator.

He was supposed to be defending her against a charge of "possessing instruments for methamphetamine use" - the police were not seeking to remand her in custody - they were happy for her to be out on bail.

He decided this was wrong - not because of her desires - but because she was pregnant. Because she was pregnant, Tony Bouchier thought that rather than act as her lawyer, he'd act as the fetus's social worker. He sought a treatment order, and in the meantime she remains in jail, while the court tries to figure out it if has the facilities to lock up a woman for being pregnant.

None of which is consistent with the following legal obligations he had to her:
  • protect and promote your clients interests and act for them free from compromising influences or loyalties
  • discuss with your client their objectives and how they should best be achieved
  • protect your client's privacy and ensure appropriate confidentiality
  • treat your client fairly, respectfully and without discrimination

He justifies himself like this: "I think looking out for Isabelle is looking out for the baby. Isabelle is not concerned with the baby. Isabelle is concerned about Isabelle." He doesn't think she feels like a pregnant woman should, and therefore the best way to 'look out' for her is to lock her up on the assumption that that's good for her fetus.

Over and over again those talking about her in the news describe her as abusing her 'baby'. Their anger is not directed a world where a woman can have so few resources that she is sleeping in a shed. I've no idea what her story is, but I'm far angry that she has had to get by with so little, not that her fetus is exposed to the conditions that she lives in. Because she is a person, not just an incubator.

Tony Bouchier was betting that no-one would see her as a person. She is poor, brown, and addicted to drugs. She is described as having unspecified mental health problems. The newspaper describe the dirt of where she was living in great detail, but don't even try to capture her voice. So far it has paid off, he has been called a hero, and praised by almost all who comment on the case.

Tony Bouchier is not a hero. Tony Bouchier is using his power over Isabelle Brown to incarcerate her, because he does not respect her as a person and the courts are letting him.


Unknown said...

This is a very good post. I'm sorry, I don't have much more than that to add because I haven't done a lot of reading on this, but this is a terrific blog post and I just wanted to give you some props.

Draco TB said...

She obviously needs help and, let go, she won't get it. I don't particularly like the lawyer went about getting her detained but, in this case, he may have a point.

Of course, she's probably likely to end up on the scrap heap again in the next few months as the help she needs won't be available for some reason or another.

Muerk said...

Isabelle Brown is a person who desperately needs help and likewise her unborn baby. The needs of the mother aren't at odds with the needs of her child. I think her lawyer did the right thing that will get the best outcome for both mum and baby.

And yes, it is disgusting that we live in a society where someone can have so few resources as to end up in a shed. It's evil and it is wrong. We need better help for vulnerable people, for example more drug and alcohol treatment centres. Better access to mental health professionals, and more beds in hospital. More state houses would be brilliant too so that people can have a stable, affordable place to live.

I'm glad that Tony Bouchier is pushing the system to help his client and her unborn baby. It was a _good_ thing to do.

Maia said...

Thanks Tui

Draco TB and Muerk - To suggest someone who is going to jail is getting help can only come from a place of extreme ignorance and naievity of our prison system.

For example, she was on the Methadone programme. That treatment will have been stopped because she went to jail and the methadone programme is not available in jail.

I don't know what you imagine her life is like in jail. But she will be receiving no treatment for her drug and alcohol addiction. She will receive no mental health treatment.

Instead she will be repeatedly strip searched and she will be locked up. Helping her how?

Mikaere Curtis said...

I agree, jail is not where Isabelle should be treated - she should be in a hospital or other care facility.

My reading of the article was that the lawyer was actually more concerned about protecting the unborn child from the effects of drug abuse. He can't get the courts to assist Isabelle, but he could get her into an environment where drugs are much less available.

Yes, it's terrible that Isabelle doesn't have the resources to look after herself properly. And it is equally terrible that the system is unable to help her, other than locking her up.

However, what should be done when there is evidence of serious risk to the unborn child ? Should be just shrug our shoulders and say that Isabelle's personal agency is more important than any risk she poses to her unborn child, or should Tony Bouchier do the only thing he could, and oppose bail ?

The outcome is not very good, but I think that protecting an unborn child trumps the wishes of a mother who poses a serious risk to that child.

Maia, are you really OK with allowing such a risk to take place ?

A Nonny Moose said...

If he wanted to "help", why didn't he:

- Find her a safe house, or place to live, with support
- Find her her mental health support
- Track down family/whanau who might be willing to help

Oh no, that means money and effort. Much easier to slam her in jail, which these days is seen as "help"...when as Maia says is nothing of the sort.

Why do people feel it's ok to co-opt someone's autonomy for their personal satisfaction that "something" has been done?

A Nonny Moose said...

"The outcome is not very good, but I think that protecting an unborn child trumps the wishes of a mother who poses a serious risk to that child."

The rights of the mother is a fundamental tenet of the pro-choice movement. If you advocate a culture that can intervene on one woman's rights, you're advocating a culture that can intervene on ALL woman's rights.

You know the scorn and concern trolling pregnant women get for smoking, drinking coffee/alcohol and eating certain foods. What's next? We'll pass laws that makes a criminal of a pregnant woman if she has a cigarette or a glass of wine?

Alison said...

Actually there's no guarantee of harm to the child. Drugs are very inconsistent in their effects on a developing fetus. One can be seriously harmed by relatively little drug use, whereas another may be not at all harmed by a larger amount. It is absolutely not as clear-cut as "she is harming her child". Drugs may be harmful to a fetus (teratogenic), but often the degree of that harm may be increased or mitigated by nutrition, stress, other drug use, sickness - jail is not an appropriate place for Isabelle right now, and there are other ways he could have sought help for her, with her permission.

Mikaere Curtis said...

The rights of the mother is a fundamental tenet of the pro-choice movement. If you advocate a culture that can intervene on one woman's rights, you're advocating a culture that can intervene on ALL woman's rights.
Not at all. Are you arguing that the right's of a mother extend to the ability to abuse their unborn child ?

And you can hardly the compare the lifestyle of a P-junkie to a woman who smokes or drinks mild amounts coffee or alcohol during pregnancy.

As I said, jail is the wrong place for Isabelle, but at least she will be off the P and getting regular meals; this has to improve the baby's chances of avoiding being damaged by Isabelle's lifestyle choices.

Anonymous said...

That woman lives in a shed because of her own decisions. She made the choice of her own free will to life a drug fueled lifestyle. Tony is acting as a person by caring for the baby which has no other voice. Perhaps this should be the courts decision... perhaps he shouldn't have taken the case... regardless, don't have a go at the man for standing by his morals and convictions.

Rageaholic said...

To those who are concerned about the voice of the unborn child: Where is Isabelle's voice? Her lawyer is supposed to speak for her but has chosen not to. If he is not looking after her interests, who is?

This women needs an advocate, someone who can assess her situation and determine what the best outcome for her is. It is highly likely that this will also be the best outcome for the unborn child as well, particular if she gets treatment for her drug addiction and any other help she needs. And remember, once that child is born, Isabelle will still be her mother, she needs the tools and resources to raise her child, not jail time.

Maia said...

Alison's point is a really important one. There is not conclusive evidence that Meth use by a mother harms a fetus (it is very difficult to design a study that controls for confounding factors).

Again you use the language of abuse. Mikaere - why? What about this is abusive? It's living in the conditions she lives in. Abuse is about power and control, not about not being the incubator other people think you should be.

You appear to think that you can do this, because the fact she's addicted to P puts her beyond the pale. The reality is that there is far more evidence for damage done by alcohol to fetuses, than damage done by Meth. So if your argument was based on evidence, rather than on the idea that there was something obviously different about Isabelle which means she does not have the rights of other women, you wouldn't set up an alcohol as the alternative.

Another known risk factor for fetuses is poverty (proven to do far more damage than the unproven damage of meth). But the solution is not to criminalise mothers, but to change their living conditions.

Muerk - another point - you seem to think this is best for her and her fetus. If you are arguing jail is best for her I think that comes from a place of supereme ignorance about jail, as I said. But even if it was the case [and to be clear I'm granting a hypothetical here] - then surely the same thing would happen whether or not she's pregnant. If it is best for her, what relevancy does the fact she's pregnant got to do with it?

Muerk said...


I was working on the premise that jail was better than her previous accommodation, but I completely agree with you that jail is not where she should be. You're right, she should be somewhere better, somewhere suited to helping people.

I also agree that this kind of help should be available to people who aren't pregnant. Although in this case there are two people to care for rather than one, which makes it more poignant.

Interestingly you talk about evidence about the effect of meth use on babies. There is research being done about this, I know because I'm part of it. I'm not a meth user, but my child was in the control group. He's had tests right from birth and they are still on going (he will be seven this year). I've been interviewed as well. So soon there will be really good research about the effect of meth on the developing child.

I do know from talking to the researchers that children of mothers who have used meth don't do as well as children whose mothers don't, but I have no idea if that's because of the drug or because of the social situation of the mothers, eg. poverty.

Muerk said...

Oh my bad, it seems my son has finished with the study. I looked it up on the website and it seems four and a half was the last time the kids were tested. They still post us stuff, so I thought they were going to test him later.

Here's the website that talks about it:

It's the "Effects of Prenatal Drug Exposure on Infant Brain Development and Neurobehavioral Outcome"

Muerk said...

I've just found the publication of the research. I quote from the abstract -

"Findings revealed the presence of clear linear relationships between the mean methadone dose prescribed for mothers during pregnancy and a range of adverse infant clinical outcomes. With increasing maternal methadone dose there was a corresponding increase in infants' risk of being born preterm, being symmetrically smaller, spending longer periods in hospital and the need for treatment for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. After due allowance for potentially confounding maternal health and lifestyle factors, maternal methadone dose during pregnancy remained a significant predictor of preterm birth, growth, and the duration of infant hospitalization post delivery. These findings suggest a need to examine more closely the potential impacts of recent trends towards the use of higher methadone dose levels during pregnancy."

Psycho Milt said...

If she's six months' pregnant, whatever damage her addictions might do to the baby has already occurred, so there isn't a whole lot of risk there - the taxpayers' hefty long-term loss on this sex act will be pretty much set in stone already. Slapping her in jail isn't going to alter that situation any, so her lawyer's done a pretty crap job of representing her.

A Nonny Moose said...

"Are you arguing that the right's of a mother extend to the ability to abuse their unborn child ?

And you can hardly the compare the lifestyle of a P-junkie to a woman who smokes or drinks mild amounts coffee or alcohol during pregnancy."

Riiight. A mother is not "abusing" her fetus, even if it what is claimed "harmful" actions (drinking, drugs). She's not sitting there going "haha fetus Imma f*** you up!" They are still her choices.

Have you never encountered the vicious rhetoric directed at pregnant women about how and what they "should" do and eat? A recently pregnant colleague of mine was told by family she was a bad mother and would harm her fetus...for drinking a glass of Coca Cola. Another pregnant colleague was shamed at a restaurant...for eating fish.

That rhetoric you hear from concern trolls about "women need licenses for having babies" - that doesn't happen in a vaccuum.

Sanctuary said...

A nice, coherent, ideologically correct line Maia.

It is a pity then than every women I've spoken to thinks you are clearly barking mad.

This post sums up the utter irrelevancy of modern feminists to lives of most women.

You'd think you might be contributing thoughts on John Key's comments on women with Mr. Veitch, or discussing the impact of ECE cuts on women's choices, or maybe talk about the impact of unemployment on low paid female workers. Heavens, no one else is the 6pm TVNZ news buried the unemployment figures after the first ad break.

But no. You decide the best thing you can do for the womens movement is attack the obscure lawyer of some obscure drug addict.

Well done. *slow hand clap*

Mikaere Curtis said...

Another known risk factor for fetuses is poverty (proven to do far more damage than the unproven damage of meth). But the solution is not to criminalise mothers, but to change their living conditions.
I'm not sure if you read the description of Isabelle's living conditions, but keywords that stood out for me were: needles, rotting food, urine-soaked, petrol can, beer bottles.

It's not just the meth and general junkie environment, it's also the lifestyle that goes along with it: minimal sleep, limited food intake, lots of other drugs.

Yes, I would rather that there better options available for how the system can care for Isabelle, and jail is clearly undesirable. I am very concerned about the risk to her unborn child.

It comes down to this:

* Isabella's right to personal agency
* Her unborn child's right to a safe, undamaged start in life.

If Isabella's rights are limited, it will be for a discrete time.

If her baby is damaged, it will be forever.

I think the baby needs a fair chance.

I you were her baby, what would you be arguing for ?

Maia said...

Muerk - thanks for that information. I think that's interesting, but not relevant in quite the way you see it.

Isabelle Brown was on the Methadone programme - so her Methadone use was prescribed by a doctor (and she has had to come off it now that she is in jail, because the methadone programme is not offered in jail. Opioids may or may not be available to Isabelle Brown in jail). The question of how to run methadone programme with pregnant women is one that I think doctors involved are thinking very carefully about (because obviously the reason people are on the methadone programme is as an alternative to other opioids - so the option isn't necessarily methadone or no methadone, but methadone or heroin (or what passes for heroin in NZ)). I don't think any of us are qualified to question the decisions that her and her doctor made to remain on the methadone programme. And more importantly, her lawyer, the judge's CYFS etc. objections don't seem to be about her use of the methadone programme.

She was charged with possessing the instruments to use Metamphetamine ('P'). There is limited research into the effect of Metamphetamine during pregnancy and the results are not conclusive (as you can imagine it's a hard thing to study, and a very hard thing to control for confounding factors). There has been a history of moral panic around illegal drug use during pregnancy, without corresponding evidence that the drugs actually do harm (see the stuff about 'crack' babies). Even if you believe that it is justified, or in the fetuses best interest, to restrict women's autonomy to reduce the fetuses exposure to certain things (and I don't), the onus of proof must be those trying to restrict people's freedom to prove that they cause harm.

Sanctury - I make no apologies for considering 'some random drug user' as central to my feminist analysis as any other woman.

[more to come]

Maia said...

Miakere - If I was a fetus I wouldn't be arguing for anything. Fetuses can neither talk nor reason.

But to take a small tangent I was born early, at a low birth weight, and with restricted access to oxygen at the time of my birth (these are generally the things that are correlated with alcohol use, and may be correlated with some drug use during pregnancy. As far as I know they're not correlated with being in the vicinity of rotting food or urine. But you're inability to separate your own reactions of disgust from the relevant facts in this case is one of the reasons we disagree). And I've lived with the effects of that since and it's not always easy. My mother stopped smoking only when she knew she was pregnant with me and she drank throughout. I doubt that there's any causal relationship, but it's possible. And no I don't think my mother's autonomy should have been limited in any way, and I'd think that even if I had proof that there was a connection between what my mother did while pregnancy and the circumstances of my birth.

I think the fact that you keep bringing up your disgust with Isabelle Brown shows how you're not actually thinking about the safety of her fetus. Our bodies don't care about societies judgement. There's no reason why metamphetamine would affect pregnancy any differently from pseudoephadrine - and women don't get locked up for taking congestants.

You state that there are competing interests here - Isabelle Brown's right to autonomy and her fetuses right to a safe environment.

There is not so such trade off. You can't provide a safe environment for a fetus without providing a safe environment for the woman.

Jail is not a safe environment for either a woman or her fetus - it is stressful, it is not going to provide plentiful food that she can eat easily, lots of sleep, or the lack of other drugs, which you say you want for Isabelle. Neither is withdrawl a particularly stress free thing to put a woman through.

So lets talk about stress - a stressed woman is a known risk factor for pregnancy (unlike metamphetamine). But is the solution state intervention to stop women being stressed (obviously such a thing would create stress). Or even to go round one by one telling women that they need to put less stress on themselves 'for their babies sake'. No the solution is to create a world that puts less stress on women in general, and has specific resources available to pregnant people.

The reality is however upset you are for her fetus no form of state intervention at this point could create an environment where Isabelle's pregnancy would have the same risk factors as another pregnant woman.

If you care about fetuses carried by women who are most screwed over by society, then direct your resources into creating a better world for those women. Not in screwing those women over some more. Because, even if you wanted it to and thought it was justified (and I would argue that that comes from a misogynist world view), you can't make a woman a better incubator by force.

Maia said...

Just to make one thing a little clear. This "if her baby is damaged it is damaged forever" rhetoric - is rhetoric that comes from a really messed view of the body.

I believe in the social model of disability - which sees disability not created by the variations in our body, but created by the way society is organised to only accept one sort of bodies. (if you struggle to understand this think of a house with three or four stairs up to it and someone in a wheelchair trying to get in. It's not their disability that stops them getting in, but the fact that the house was built to be inaccessible to them).

As I said I have a condition that is almost certainly caused by the circumstances of my birth - dyspraxia. This has been various degrees of disabling ot me at different points of my life. But when it has been particularly disabiling, has far less to dow ith what my body can't do, and far more to do with what people expect my body to do.

There are risk factors for Isabelle Brown's pregnancy. As there are risk factors for many, many pregnancies. And I'm all for reducing risk factors on a population basis.

But to suggest that pregnant people are particularly responsible for avoiding risk factors ignores the relationship between society and disability. Not least because you can bet if Isabelle Brown's fetus is born the same amount of dyspraxic as I am, then it will probably find life harder - as it is likely to have access to far fewer resources than I did.

So lets have a more complex understanding between the relationship between bodies health and society than 'Oh noes pregnant women must eliminate all risk otherwise their babies will be damaged FOREVER"

Psycho Milt said...

I believe in the social model of disability - which sees disability not created by the variations in our body, but created by the way society is organised to only accept one sort of bodies.

If you want to believe that losing your sight or the use of your legs would be no handicap, merely a "variation" of body type, no-one can stop you, but it doesn't alter the reality of the situation.

Likewise, you can believe if you want that pickling a fetus in a coctail of various poisons might not actually do it any damage, but again, reality tells us otherwise. An addict who's reached the stage of either not realising or not caring that they've pissed themselves really isn't best placed for reproductive performance - whether male or female.

The above doesn't imply "Oh noes pregnant women must eliminate all risk otherwise their babies will be damaged FOREVER," it implies that it really is a bit late to start worrying about the risk to this one.

Andy said...

Have just responded to your post at my blog: Isabelle Brown's Pre-Born Child is a Person

Anonymous said...

Thanks Maia, this is a really important post. The lawyer clearly did what he did, because he knew he could get away with it - largely because of the self-righteous twaddle on here. Let's be clear here she is in prison because she's poor.

And can people stop pretending that New Zealand prisons are anywhere near drug free. Unless she's in complete isolation it's unlikely she doesn't have access to drugs.

As far as I can see this lawyer has wrenched away what small fabric of support she had - like her GP, and put in a system which will not support her. There were simple and immediate ways that he could have aided her - but they were 'too' hard for him so he took this exceptionally shitty route, knowing that people like those on this thread would support him.

- John A.

Gravey said...

What I don't understand is why he didn't just agree to her being out on bail, and then try and get her help.

I am sure he thinks he is helping her. And I am sure he doesn't realise the (at least) highly questionable use of power could be harmful. But it does seem that the foetus is irrelevant - at least directly. His job is to defend her against the charges laid.

If Isabelle is only concerned for Isabelle, then that is just how some people are. By the same token, he should be seeking help for all selfish defendants.

Isabelle and the unborn baby need help - no question about it. But this really does not seem the right way to go about it.

As we have seen in other issues recently, just because someone has good intentions, and just because they might be trying to help someone does not justify their actions.

One of the major concerns I have here is one of legal protocol and precedence. Let's say I am a female, and pregnant. Will my legal defence be compromised by my lawyer because of my pregnancy? If (just for arguments' sake) I want to be completely selfish and irresponsible, I am still entitled to the same defence as everyone else.

The defence against the charges, and protecting the unborn child are separate issues.

Boganette said...

Sanctuary: Don't be so fucking ridiculous. You don't get to decide what women should and should not care about. This is not your blog and if you don't like it you can fuck right off. Honestly, a dudebro telling a feminist blogger what they should blog about? Gimme a fucking break.

And - funny how people only started to care about Isabelle Brown when they found out she is pregnant. Once she has this child they will throw her back on the streets and leave her to die. She's only important while she's an incubator. If she wasn't pregnant we wouldn't be hearing about her. The concern is for the foetus not for her. Which is why people advocate jail or forced hospitalisation - how she feels doesn't matter, she can be abused and her rights violated as long as the foetus is brought to term. Once the baby is born, she'll be on her own.

Muerk said...

The Government should have _never_ closed the Queen Mary Hospital at Hamner Springs. That happened back in 2003. What shocked me was that it was under a Helen Clark Labour Government. Disgusting.

Katherine said...

Once the baby is born it will be on its own as well.

Anonymous said...

..oops. wrong post. please delete above comment.

My thoughts on this are that it is excellent. I hope more people read it. For my part, I linked to it via twitter.

Anonymous said...

i came across these posts as i was researching gp's who care for drug addicted babies. good points from all here but from someone who does know isobelle, from someone who has tried to help her from a medical perspective along with many others it comes down to how much you really want to change. isobelle is among many women with the same story but isobelle had the choice to choose drugs over carrying a healthy baby. I am all for this lawyer, i am sad for isobelle but this is not the first time she has done this, this wee baby has no voice and someone needed to speak for it. i have first hand experience because i am caring for my grandson who was addicted to meth at birth. it has taken a very long time to get this out of his system, he has had to deal with so much as have my husband and i, i think it is appalling that mothers choose drugs over their babies, they dont care because if they did they would stop. we wont know the fulleffect of this drug to his development until early teens, there are far too many babies being born like this.