In the Alabama Supreme Court

March 14, 2012

Locking up Alabama Mothers is Bad for Babies

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Leading Medical, Public Health and Child Welfare Organizations Ask Alabama Supreme Court to Stop Prosecuting and Punishing Pregnant Women

Yesterday 47 medical, public health, and legal advocacy groups and individuals, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Nurses Association filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief in the Alabama Supreme Court urging it to reverse a Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision expanding Alabama’s Chemical Endangering Law to permit prosecution and punishment of new mothers, pregnant women and their doctors.

Alabama’s 2006 chemical endangerment law was passed to deter people from bringing children to places where controlled substances are produced or distributed, such as methamphetamine laboratories. The statute makes no mention of pregnancy, pregnant women, or unborn children and the state legislature has repeatedly refused to transform this law intended to protect children, into one that would permit prosecution and punishment of pregnant women and new mothers.

Over 60 Alabama mothers, including Hope Ankrom and Amanda Kimbrough, have been charged under the state’s chemical endangering law – not for running meth labs or bringing children to them but rather for continuing their pregnancies to term in spite of a drug problem. Ms. Ankrom and Ms. Kimbrough have appealed their convictions to the Alabama Supreme Court.

Brian White, counsel for Amanda Kimbrough explains, “the Chemical Endangerment Law was never intended to apply to pregnant women. The Court of Criminal Appeals has engaged in judicial activism, and in the guise of judicial interpretation passed new legislation that is recognized to be bad for babies.” Mr. White added, “Alabama has been very clear that the pregnant women and the unborn must be protected from violent and negligent actions: this is very different from laws that turn pregnant women and mothers into criminals.”

“As a result of the far-reaching Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision,” says Emma Ketteringham, Director of Legal Advocacy at National Advocates for Pregnant Women and counsel for amici, “even pregnant women who receive prescribed medication and their doctors who prescribe them are now potentially subject to criminal penalties.”

Amici are experts in medicine and public health and condemn these prosecutions as a matter of law, logic and public health. Although they do not endorse the use of illegal drugs during pregnancy, they argue that the risks of harm from illegal drug use are not greater than many other risks and that using the criminal law to address issues of drug use and pregnancy undermines maternal and fetal health by deterring pregnant women from seeking drug treatment, prenatal care, labor and delivery services that are beneficial to the health of their children. Furthermore, these experts maintain that if this decision is upheld it could encourage pregnant women who cannot overcome an addiction in the short term of pregnancy to have unwanted abortions to avoid criminal penalties.

Tamar Todd of the Drug Policy Alliance, counsel for amici, explains, “such prosecutions are misguided because they treat drug addiction as a moral failing that will respond to threats of punishment. The health of women and children will be improved if pregnant women are given access to medical care and treatment rather than deterred from seeking it.”

Amicus American College of Obstetricians and Gynecology describes “the criminalization of substance abuse during pregnancy” as “a disturbing trend.” ACOG’s Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women in a Committee Opinion, concluded although legal against pregnant women who abuse drugs is taken with the intent to produce healthy birth outcomes, negative results such as dissuading women to seek prenatal care often occur.

The amicus briefs in support of Ms. Ankrom and Ms. Kimbrough was filed on behalf of:

American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
American Psychiatric Association
American Medical Association
The Medical Association of Alabama
American Medical Women’s Association
American Nurses Association
The Alabama Women’s Resource Network
American Society of Addiction Medicine
Black Women’s Health Imperative
Child Welfare Organizing Project
Global Lawyers and Physicians
Harm Reduction Coalition
Institute For Health and Recovery
International Center for Advancement of Addiction Treatment of the Beth Israel Medical Center Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute
International Centre for Science in Drug Policy
International Doctors for Healthy Drug Policies
International Mental Disability Law Reform Project
Legal Action Center
National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum’s
National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health
National Association of Social Workers
National Association of Social Workers, Alabama Chapter
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.
National Institute for Reproductive Health
National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health
National Organization for Women - Alabama
National Perinatal Association
National Women’s Health Network
National Women’s Law Center
Our Bodies Ourselves
Southern Center for Human Rights
Pippa Abston, MD, PhD, FAAP
Sheila Blume, MD
Susan C. Boyd, PhD
Wendy Chavkin, MPH, MD
Nancy Day MPH, PhD
Gabriele Fischer MD
Deborah A. Frank, MD
Leslie Hartley Gise, MD
Stephen R. Kandall, MD
Howard Minkoff, MD
Daniel R. Neuspiel, MD, MPH
Robert G. Newman, MD, MPH
Linda Worley, MD
Trecia Wouldes, PhD
Tricia E. Wright, MD, MS
The organization All Our Lives also joined this amicus brief.

The amicus brief was filed on behalf of these organizations and experts by the Drug Policy Alliance, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.