Free Stacey Anvarinia!

Stacey Anvarinia

Where’s the outrage?

North Dakota mother Stacey Anvarinia was charged with felony child neglect for an action, breastfeeding while intoxicated, which is not a crime and does not pose a risk to her baby.

She was charged without any evidence that she was drunk; police never bothered to perform a breathalyzer test or obtain a blood alcohol level.

Perhaps most remarkable, the police did not find, nor did they even allege, any actual harm to the child.

This young woman is living a nightmare of Kafka-esqe proportions. She called police for help after allegedly being beaten by her boyfriend. Not only was the assault ignored, but she was arrested for a crime invented by police, without evidence, on the basis of their “impressions.” On Friday she was sentenced to 18 months in prison (12 months suspended) for her non-crime, possibly extending the separation she and her infant daughter have already endured.

Stacey Anvarinia was arrested and charged with felony child neglect for breastfeeding while intoxicated. There’s just one problem. Breastfeeding while drunk is not a crime. In fact, it is not even dangerous. Any alcohol that the mother drinks is diluted in her blood volume. Only a tiny amount even reaches the breastmilk. Everyone from the American Academy of Pediatrics to La Leche League considers occasional alcohol use compatible with safe breastfeeding.

So why aren’t feminists rushing to her defense? Some have commented on the injustice of her arrest, but most have been silent, and many appear to privately condemn her as a bad mother. But even bad mothers have legal rights and there is good cause to believe that Stacey Arivinia’s rights have been trampled.

I fear that feminists, like the police officers themselves, have been affected by a perverse American social phenomenon. When it comes to mothering, we have been defining deviancy up.

This is the opposite of a phenomenon described by sociologist Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In the paper Defining Deviancy Down (American Scholar, Winter 1993) Moynihan asserts that as the level of crime and other forms of social deviancy rose, American society responded by defining deviancy down, accepting everyday crimes as “normal” and reserving concern only for spectacular crimes.

When it comes to the “crimes” of mothering, American society has been defining deviancy up. There was a time when the crime of child abuse meant physically abusing a child and the crime of child neglect meant failing to feed a child or seek appropriate medical attention. In the past quarter century, though, we have become obsessed defining mothering by certain ritualized performances.

A quote from feminist scholar Rebecca Kukla’s paper Measuring Motherhood seems particularly apt in this context:

As a culture, we have a tendency to measure motherhood in terms of a set of signal moments that have become the focus of special social attention and anxiety … “Good” mothers are those who pass a series of tests — … they do not let a sip of alcohol cross their lips during pregnancy, they give birth vaginally without pain medication, they do not offer their child an artificial nipple during the first six months, they feed their children maximally nutritious meals with every bite, and so on…

And as Kukla observes:

Thus to the extent that we take “proper” maternal performance during these key moments as a measure of mothering as a whole, we will re-inscribe social privilege. We will read a deficient maternal character into the bodies and actions of underprivileged and socially marginalized women, whereas privileged women with socially normative home and work lives will tend to serve as our models of proper maternal character.

It is not a coincidence that Stacey Anvarinia is an underprivileged and socially marginalized woman. Her real crime was that she was not “performing motherhood” in the ways socially sanctioned by privileged, middle and upper class women. That’s why she was arrested in the first place, and that’s why feminist protest has been muted.

It’s time to end this farce. Is Stacey Anvarinia a good mother? That is a decision that should be made by Child Protective Services. The key point is that she committed no crime and it is inappropriate and unjust to evaluate her mothering within the criminal justice system. And it is especially abhorrent to punish her “bad” mothering with jail time and by tearing her apart from her infant.

Feminists should rally to her cause. While they may not personally approve of her choices, they should be loath to accept the criminalization of mothering behavior simply because it is socially disfavored. Breastfeeding while intoxicated is not a crime and there is no scientific evidence to support a claim that it is harmful.