Decriminalization as a Public Health Issue


Criminalization drives stigma, harms public health, and violates human rights. The imposition of criminal penalties exist across the U.S. and around the world, and it creates barriers to adequate and comprehensive health care for many populations. Beirne Roose-Snyder from the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and Preston Mitchum from Advocates for Youth sit down with us to discuss how criminalization negatively impacts access to multiple types of care for the most vulnerable in our society.

Criminal penalties often extend to a number of individuals who are seeking care but already face barriers and are marginalized, including low-income people, black and brown people, and people who live in the global south. Criminalization, state statutes and criminal codes may often extend to those with HIV, those seeking abortion care, and sex workers. In reference to sexual and reproductive health and rights, criminal codes may be used to police consensual sexual behavior between adults, or identity and expression among adults.

Criminalization of abortion happens in many different ways. There are countries in our hemisphere that have entirely criminalized environments. In El Salvador, women are often jailed for stillbirths, miscarriages and self-managed abortions. These women are often poor, rural, indigenous, or ethnic minorities. Criminalization also exists in the U.S., as exemplified in the 2013 case of Purvi Patel, a young woman convicted under feticide and child neglect laws in Indiana and sentenced to twenty years in prison after giving birth to and disposing of a newborn she believed to be dead.

Criminalization occurs throughout and beyond the sexual and reproductive health sphere, and there is a persistent theme of prosecuting the most vulnerable people. This includes the global criminalization of LGBTQ persons, sex work, and those with HIV.

Criminalization is deeply connected to bodily autonomy and the ability to have agency over one’s own body. Criminal penalties are used both internationally and in the U.S. to try to reinforce specific views on bodily autonomy. It is not secret that these penalties heavily contribute to stigma, infringe upon human rights, and actively damage global and domestic health.

Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash

Links from this episode

Follow CHANGE and Advocates for Youth on Facebook
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Sex Worker Advocates Coalition
Collective Action for Safe Spaces
Body Politics Report from Amnesty International

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