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July 21, 2006

What are President Bush's Principles on the Sanctity of Human Life?

Yesterday, President Bush, exercising his first veto, rejected the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act that many in Congress and the medical community believe will lead to many potentially life-saving medical breakthroughs. According to the New York Times, "Mr. Bush said the bill violated his principles on the sanctity of human life." We understand that there are wide differences of opinion on such issues as abortion, the death penalty, war and even health care. Nevertheless we at NAPW wondered whether these pricinples apply to any form of life other than embryonic and fetal life in light of the following:

• As Texas Governor, George W. Bush oversaw the execution of 152 people in Texas

• As US President George W. Bush oversaw the first federal executions since the 1960s

• As US President George W. Bush began a war and is now overseeing an occupation in Iraq resulting in the deaths of 2,555 American soldiers and the deaths of 39,250 (minimum estimate) Iraqi citizens.

• Statistics released by the Clean Air Task Force noted that the 51 power plants subject to President Bush's weakened environemntal enformecment polices helped to cause the premature deaths of 5,500 to 9,000 people each year, many from respiratory diseases.

• Twelve Sago miners died since the current administration discarded 17 proposed Mine Health and Safety Administration standards to protect miners' safety and health.

• 45 million Americans, including 8 million children, are without health insurance.

Alison Guttu, Julie Ehrlich, Ian Vandewalker, Rebecca Touger and Lynn Paltrow.

July 19, 2006

What Started Out As a Little Blog . . .

just summarizing a few of the new and very disturbing assaults on pregnant women and families turned into a commentary published by TomPaine.com and picked up by Alternet, entitled Blaming Pregnant Women. Thank you to editor Alex Walker, at TomPainecom for making this possible: In a society that values children, it's striking how frequently our public policy falls short of our rhetoric. Too often, the notion of collective responsibility for the nation's children translates into collective demonization of pregnant women. Collective responsibility for our children should mean support for policies that help pregnant women get the care they need to have healthy babies. Instead, states and localities are increasingly blaming individual women, exaggerating the harms from individual behaviors.

In Arkansas' recent special spring session, Hot Springs Rep. Bob Mathis followed up his successful proposal to make it illegal for someone to smoke in a car with children with a proposal to ban pregnant women from smoking.

For those who subscribe to the view that pregnant women are vessels, treating them like cars makes perfect sense.

No one disputes that smoking, drinking and using drugs raise serious health issues for everyone, including pregnant women and their future children. Addressing these health matters, however, through punitive prohibition measures does not work to protect the health of women or the babies they’re carrying. Rather, focusing on pregnant women as dangerous people who require special control or punishment inevitably undermines maternal and fetal health. Such measures divert attention from pregnant women’s lack of access to health services, and deters them from seeking what little help is available. That is why medical groups including the American Medical Association, the March of Dimes and the American Academy of Pediatrics overwhelmingly oppose punitive measures targeting pregnant women.

Nevertheless, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, supported Mathis’ proposal, saying , "a lawmaker's suggestion to prohibit women from smoking during pregnancy makes sense from a health standpoint."

It only makes sense if you haven't bothered to think for a moment about the nature of addiction. Ask Rush Limbaugh, who has by word and deed made clear that addiction—even for the most popular and economically privileged people—can be very very difficult to overcome. According to press accounts, Huckabee added that "such a prohibition, if enacted, would probably have to cover other unhealthy activities such as drinking." Perhaps the governor forgot about America's experiment with alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. It failed miserably and there is nothing to suggest that resurrecting it for women only will work any better.

Meanwhile, a county in Alabama is also pursuing public policies that punish pregnant women for their otherwise legal behaviors. Late last month in Franklin County, a woman was arrested and charged with child torture for giving birth to a baby that tested positive for methamphetamine. Never mind that Alabama's legislature has not made it a crime to continue a pregnancy to term in spite of a drug problem or that more than 90 medical researchers warn not to rush to judgment about the potential harms of prenatal exposure to methamphetamine. And just ignore the fact that access to appropriate family drug treatment for pregnant and parenting women is virtually non-existent in this country.

Again, drug use and pregnancy are serious public health issues. But reinterpreting pregnancy as a form of torture and pregnant women as torturers won't help. Drug treatment, access to health care and family support will. It is highly unlikely, however that these services will be provided if the pregnant women and new mothers who need those services are stigmatized as child torturers.

Recent days have also seen a California jury deadlock 6-6 in the case of a woman accused of murdering her infant son by feeding him breast milk containing methamphetamine. What was originally identified as an infant death due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome became a murder case when prosecutors found traces of methamphetamine in the baby's system. Prosecutors could not even prove the mother breastfed, but they pursued this theory anyway. The mother was convicted at her first trial. The conviction was overturned and the latest trial resulted in the deadlock.

Now let's bring all this full circle. A June 13 story in The New York Times entitled "Breast-Feed or Else" reports that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recently come up with a new, strident pro-breast-feeding campaign. The campaign warns that not breast-feeding may be hazardous to a baby's health and it equates failure to breast feed with risky behaviors like smoking and drinking during pregnancy.

So while Washington launches a government-sponsored breastfeeding campaign built on the premise that mothers who don't breast feed are bad, prosecutors in California have been working hard to portray mothers who do breast-feed as worse, in this case as potential murderers.

These seemingly unrelated events share a common feature—they all focus attention on pregnant women and mothers as the primary threats to the health and well being of our children. Such a preoccupation with pregnant women stands in stark contrast with a government that allows coal-burning power plants to pour poisonous mercury into the environment with impunity and the 45 million people without health insurance—including many pregnant women and new mothers who lack coverage for smoking cessation programs, addiction treatment and mental health services.

These disparate interventions and proposals have something else in common. They ensure that pregnant women and new mothers will be at risk of judgment and punishment no matter what they do. It is hard to imagine a worse scenario for anyone serious about improving maternal, fetal and child health.

July 7, 2006

New Arrests of Pregnant Women

NAPW is tracking every case involving the arrests of pregnant women nationwide, and according to news reports, two new arrests have been made in Alabama of women who gave birth to infants who allegedly tested positive for drugs. Telisha Patterson and Haley Mays were recently arrested and charged with torture or willful abuse of a child and child endangerment for giving birth in spite of a drug problem. Alabama has no law permitting such arrests and a court opinion from 1995 says that this very law may not be used as a mechanism for policing pregnancy. Yet here they are, two more arrests.

Part of the reason of why we keep seeing these new cases is how they are covered by the media. For example, one news report from WSB-TV quotes a cashier as a reliable authority that Ms. Patterson was taking drugs. That same story also relies on a sheriff as its medical authority, quoting him as saying that the baby “has the symptoms, feelings, as an addict, even though its small.” If you were sick, would you rely on a police officer or service station cashier for medical diagnosis and advice? It would be far more appropriate to rely on any of the more than ninety scientific experts who have submitted an open letter calling on the media to refrain from using the term “addicted baby” because medical evidence does not support the term and that babies, by definition, cannot be "addicted" to anything. According to the experts, addiction refers to compulsive behavior that continues in spite of adverse consequences. These same experts also state that although research on the impact of methamphetamine exposure is still in the early stages, over 20 years of research on the related drug, cocaine, has not identified any recognizable condition, syndrome or disorder resulting from prenatal exposure to the drug warranting the terms “meth baby” or “crack baby.”

Sadly, these news articles did exactly what the experts specifically warned against when they told the media “to stop its practice of relying on people who lack scientific experience or expertise for their information about the effects of prenatal exposure to [drugs] and the efficacy of treatment”!

The media even quotes Sheriff Plot as saying that he hopes that potential parents will avoid their “temptation to abuse drugs by knowing that medical professionals will test newborns for narcotics.” Medical knowledge about addiction and dependency treatment demonstrates that patients do not and cannot simply stop their drug use as a result of threats of arrest or other negative consequences. In fact, threat-based approaches do not protect children, but you would not know this from media coverage.

Instead, Ms. Mays and Ms. Patterson have been portrayed as unfeeling mothers who callously continued to use drugs while they were pregnant. But did the media inquire as to whether Ms. Mays and Ms. Patterson sought treatment for their alleged drug problems and whether such treatment even existed? Did they research whether treatment centers accept pregnant woman who may not have health insurance? Whether family drug treatment that permits families to stay intact while a parent gets treatment exists? And with respect to Ms. Patterson’s tragic situation, it appears as if she gave birth at home and was immediately sent to the county jail. Did anyone check to see whether she was provided with any medical care? Has she stopped bleeding, is her afterbirth complete, is she dehydrated, does she need stitches? Did the news reports provide any answers to these questions? NO.

Predictably, the news does however report that local residents are horrified and angry at these moms, quoting one as saying that “I think its terrible because here’s a woman who knew she was pregnant and had to know that this little life would be affected by it.” Maybe if they knew the whole story, their opinions would change. NAPW is working with local counsel and is sending local journalists medical information that we hope they will use next time instead of the myths that featured so prominently in the coverage so far. We ask that whenever you see similar cases of misleading news coverage of this issue, you send the journalist a link to the letter from the experts so that we can continue to educate the media about the truth about pregnancy and addiction.

Tiloma Jayasinghe, Baron Edmond de Rothschild Staff Attorney Fellow

July 3, 2006

Thank you Julie Burkhart

In mid June, authorities found the body of a 14 year old girl, who was nine months pregnant. Police suspect that her abusive boyfriend helped to commit this crime. Unfortunatley Ms. Brooks is just one of far too many girls and women killed as a result of male violence.

On average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in this country every day.

Rather than address the pervasive violence against women in Kansas, across the United States and throughout the world, anti-choice activists leapt on this tragic case as an opportunity to advance fetal rights.

Julie Burkhart, is Executive Director of ProKanDo a Kansas based reproductive rights political action committee. Julie began receiving press calls almost immediately. The press inquiries were, however, not about Chelsea Brooks, but rather were all about the rights of the fetus, the fact that it was "viable," and why Kansas did not have an Unborn Victims of Violence Act. Initial press coverage carried such headlines s as: "Girl's death spurs call for new fetal law" and "Family seeks to criminalize killing fetuses."

Kansans for Life were ready, claiming that the "pro-abortion" Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Senate president Steve Morrison and Senate Judicial Chair John Vratil -- who did not support a state Unborn Victims of Violence Act bill-- "are to blame for the lack of a law protecting pregnant women."

Julie Burkhart, however knew something was desperately wrong. She knew that as long as the response to rampant violence against women is replaced by a debate about fetuses, the violence would continue. Julie knew this from personal experience. She herself has a sister who six years ago was brutally murdered in Kansas by an abusive boyfriend.

Julie has long been a brave and outspoken advocate and activist on behalf of pregnant women. It, however, takes special courage to speak out from personal experience, to remember and re-live personal traumas and horrors. Julie though, perhaps better than many others, understood the loss to Chelsea's family and the sad truth that the loss of Chelsea's life and of the child she would soon have had --would not have been prevented by the passage of another fetal rights law. As the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual And Domestic Violence will tell you, punitive laws applied after the fact do nothing to prevent the violence so rampant in our society.

Julie has been working tirelessly through numerous coalition and public education efforts to change the debate and ensure that the conversation focuses on how to prevent the pervasive violence in women's lives. Her recent op ed has gone a long way to accomplishing this and provides a model for other women whose personal experiences can inform and strengthen their work. We thank Julie Burkhart for speaking out, for understanding that the personal is the political and for sharing her personal experiences in a way that enhances honest debate that will eventually lead to interventions that will really make women, children, and families safer.

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