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