Drugs, Pregnancy and Battering

March 05, 2006

A pregnant woman who uses drugs and a battered woman are often one and the same person. As numerous studies have shown, many pregnant drug users are women who have experienced high levels of past and present abuse. Many researchers have suggested that there is a relationship, perhaps even a causal one, between domestic violence and drug use.

In one study of pregnancy and drug use, 70% of the study participants reported they had been in one or more relationships in which their male partner had physically battered them. Of the 84 women who had been assaulted by their partners, nearly half (45%) reported being battered during their current or most recent pregnancy. Twenty-five of the 84 women (30%) who had been victims of partner violence were in an abusive relationships at the time of the interview. In addition to the violence they endured within their homes, the neighborhoods these women grew up in were, in many instances, veritable "combat zones". Between gang warfare, police raids, random shooting, and drug dealing, fear became a way of life for the overwhelming majority of women who participated in this study.

These findings concur with other studies that indicate a link between childhood experiences of violence, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and the increased likelihood that a woman will develop a drug and alcohol problem later in life. For many of the study participants, drug use was a way of numbing themselves to the violence that engulfed them.

Pregnant Drug Users Face Many Barriers to the Treatment They Need

For many years, drug treatment programs simply ignored women and often refused to accept them for treatment. Although availability of drug treatment for pregnant women and mothers has increased somewhat, there continues to be a severe shortage of appropriate and accessible programs.

Significantly, many programs that do exist, especially those offered within the criminal justice system, fail to address the effects of past violence ‹ or even insist on ignoring them making it likely that the violence will continue to haunt the women and propel them toward continued drug use. Moreover, most shelters and programs for battered women insist that the women be completely drug free. Because addiction is, by definition, a chronic relapsing disease, it is extremely difficult for pregnant drug users to succeed in total drug abstinence in order to qualify for services for battered women. And, with some drugs, such as heroin, attempting sudden withdrawal, can actually cause fetal demise.

In addition, pregnant women, especially post-Whitner, face barriers to reproductive health care ‹ whether it is abortion services or prenatal care ­ because of anti-choice activities and the possibility that they will be reported as child abusers for their drug use or lack of adequate care. It is not inconceivable that a woman who "exposes herself" to violence during pregnancy could, be prosecuted for endangering the welfare of the child (viable fetus). Programs must be developed and supported that recognize the overlap in these issues.

Domestic Violence and Pregnancy

It has been documented that women face increased risks of domestic violence and battering when they become pregnant. As the US Supreme Court recently noted: "Mere notification of pregnancy is frequently a flashpoint for battering and violence within the family. The number of battering incidents is high during pregnancy and often the worst abuse can be associated with pregnancy. The battering husband may deny paternity and use the pregnancy as an excuse for abuse."

The South Carolina Supreme Court has twice addressed cases where a boyfriend has severely abused a pregnant woman (State v. Horne and State v. Ard). Rather than focusing on the abuse to the woman, these cases have been used as a basis for establishing fetal rights.