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March 17, 2008

Prosecutions in Alabama? Say No!

On Saturday March 15, 2008 the New York Times published a story, In Alabama, a Crackdown on Pregnant Drug Users. We were pleased that it did not use such stigmatizing and scientifically baseless terms as "crack" and " meth" baby. We were disappointed though that the story did not quote any experts in the field. Rather the story said: "Some doctors and advocacy groups maintain that the effects of drugs on pregnant women and their fetuses are not fully known. . ." This phrasing suggests a level of doubt that simply does not exist. It implies that arresting pregnant women who become pregnant and continue to term in spite of a drug problem might somehow be justified. In fact, every leading medical and public health group to take a position on the issue opposes prosecution of pregnant women and new mothers as counterproductive to both maternal and fetal health. Moreover, as the information we provided to the New York Times makes clear, there is no room for doubt. Virtually every leading researcher in the field of prenatal exposure to drugs has concluded that while use of these drugs should not be viewed as benign, the actual and extensive peer reviewed and published research that has been done has been unable to identify a recognizable "condition, syndrome or disorder" resulting from exposure to these drugs that would justify singling out their use as a basis for the prosecutions of pregnant women.

There are many reasons to oppose the prosecution of pregnant women and new mothers. These prosecutions, if upheld would create legal precedent for the finding that women, upon becoming pregnant lose their civil and human rights. If a pregnant woman can be viewed as a child abuser before she ever gives birth, or as a murderer because she can not guarantee a healthy birth outcome, she ceases to exist as a full human being and full rights bearing citizen. Here is just one small example. Very often in these cases it is assumed that women should be able to stop their drug use when they become pregnant. But because pregnant women are no less human than other people, they too become addicted to drugs . This means that the desire and intent to stop is very often not enough to overcome the addiction. Pregnant women no less than people like Rush Limbaugh deserve compassion and treatment as they struggle with addiction not the presumption that they can simply stop. If pregnant women fail to overcome fully an addiction in the short term of pregnancy, their continued use is taken by some as evidence of a desire to harm their future child -- rather than as evidence that they are human beings and struggling like other people with the physiological and psychological ramifications of addiction.

Other reasons to oppose the prosecution of pregnant women include the fact that incarcerating pregnant women in prisons and jails that do not provide adequate health care and that permit shackling of women who are pregnant and in labor will not help anyone. Moreover, arguing about prosecutions of pregnant women keeps us from talking about the lack of appropriate family drug treatment for pregnant women and parents, lack of universal health care in general, and lack of commitment to our country's mothers and children.

Oh, and by the way, NAPW is working with local attorneys and advocacy organizations to challenge these prosecutions.

Want to do something to help stop these cases? Send a letter/email about how these prosecutions are bad for both maternal and fetal health to: The Alabama Prosecutor: Covington County DA Greg Gambrill at gambrilg@alaweb.com; and to Alabama Governor Bob Riley, Attorney General Troy King, and Donald E. Williamson, MD at the Alabama Department of Health.