Should Pregnant Drug Users Be Treated Like Criminals?
A woman walks in to see a doctor. She is pregnant and she needs prenatal care. She also confesses something: She has a drug problem and is struggling to not use, but she’s sure that with this pregnancy as motivation, she will be able to stay clean.
Do you throw her in jail?
That’s the question that National Advocates for Pregnant Women is hoping will be answered by the federal courts. The advocacy group has filed a challenge as a result of the case of Alicia Beltran, a Wisconsin woman who confessed during a prenatal appointment that she was recovering from an addiction to painkillers. According to NAPW, Beltran was then arrested on July 18, 2013 under a law that protects any pregnancy from the moment of conception from a pregnant person who “habitually lacks self-control in the use of alcohol or controlled substances.”
“The Wisconsin law takes away from a pregnant woman virtually every right associated with constitutional personhood — from the most basic right to physical liberty to the right to refuse bad medical advice,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women and a co-counsel to Beltram. “This kind of dangerous, authoritarian state-action, is exactly what happens when laws give police officers and other state actors the authority to treat fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as if they are already completely separate from the pregnant woman.”
There is little doubt that states across the country are increasingly looking for ways to charge those who currently or formerly used drugs and became pregnant, even in cases where the person in question is actually doing things that are in the best interest of the child she is carrying or has given birth to. Bei Bei Shuai in Indiana was charged with murder despite doing everything that doctors requested of her to try to care for her baby both during pregnancy and after birth after she went in for treatment following a suicide attempt.
In an even more unsettling case in Alabama, a young woman is being actively sought by the police after leaving her newborn in the hospital after giving birth, after the baby tested positive for cocaine and opiates. Their goal? To find her and charge her with “chemical endangerment of exposing a child to an environment in which controlled substances are produced or distributed.”
The idea of pregnancy and drug abuse, either actual or potential, is a tough one for many people to rationalize as anything but a crime. Even advocates who have been the most supportive of women’s rights or most compassionate when it comes to the struggles of addiction tend to balk once an unborn child is added to the scenario. But in actuality, for anyone who supports women, the rights of those who struggle or have struggled with addiction, or children’s rights should be able to draw together in common cause.
Arresting a pregnant person who may have a drug problem does little to address the underlying reason for the addiction and could cause further physical harm to the fetus. Arrest as a precedent could also send others like Beltram from accessing prenatal care or fully informing medical professionals about their entire medical history of which the drug issues are a part. Children born without adequate prenatal care are going to be children who will be subject to a number of health risks regardless of what the mother may be doing during her pregnancy.
As bad if not worse is the threat of arresting a woman or girl who leaves her child at a hospital, a place traditionally covered under safe haven laws allowing a mother to abandon a child with no legal consequences. If a pregnant woman doing drugs willingly leaves behind a child she cannot or does not feel she can care for, that is in the infants best interest. If she is worried that she could be arrested if she leaves him or her behind, she may take the child with her, putting his or her life in danger.
If we truly care about the child, we need to care for the mothers. Get them real help, not handcuffs.
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