Punishment and Prejudice: Judging Drug-Using Pregnant Women

January 31, 1999

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Throughout the late 1980's and still today, "crack moms" and "crack babies" are the subject of vigorous public debate. Much of this public discussion has been governed by speculation and medical misinformation reported as fact in both medical journals and in the popular press and has been extremely judgmental and punitive in many instances.

Punishment and Prejudice: Judging Drug-Using Pregnant Women

Lynn M. Paltrow

Throughout the late 1980's and still today, "crack moms" and "crack babies"

are the subject of vigorous public debate. 1 Much of this public discussion has been

governed by speculation and medical misinformation reported as fact in both medical

journals and in the popular press and has been extremely judgmental and punitive in

many instances. The harshest response has been the call for the arrest and prosecution

of women who use cocaine during pregnancy.

In a country that had come to learn that certain drugs, such as thalidomide and

DES, can cause serious damage to a child exposed to them prenatally, it is not

surprising that people are concerned about the possible effects of prenatal exposure to

cocaine. But a concern that could have become the basis for rational scientific inquiry

as well as compassionate and constructive discussion quickly became a conclusion that

all children exposed prenatally to cocaine would be damaged irrevocably and that their

mother's selfish and irresponsible drug-taking behavior is to blame for a national health


One key question is why was there such a "rush to judgment" both about the

medical effects of cocaine and about the women who used it while pregnant. 2 While

there is no one, simple answer, it is clear that the issue of drugs and pregnancy touches

on some of the most highly charged and deeply entrenched political issues of our day.

It involves America's long tradition of punishing drug use rather than providing

treatment and education. 3 Because the problem of cocaine use in pregnancy was

presented as one predominantly as a problem of the African American community it is

deeply intertwined with issues of race, race discrimination, and the legacy of slavery: 4

while illicit substance abuse crosses all race and class lines, this particular debate has

focused on low-income African-American women, many of whom are rely on welfare.

Because it involves women and pregnancy, the issue of drugs and pregnancy is

inseparable from issues concerning the status of all women as well as with sex and

sexuality. 5

Finally, the issue of pregnant women's drug use has been shaped by claims

of fetal rights that are at the heart of today's abortion debate. 6

It is not possible to address all of these influences here. But identifying them

helps to explain why rational and compassionate discussion of the issue is so difficult.

For example, if the issue of drug use does not trigger an emotional response, the issue

of race or women's rights. As a result, there is little room for meaningful exploration

of what the medical risks of cocaine use during pregnancy really are and what might

actually help pregnant women and drug exposed infants.

It also means that there is virtually no room to discuss complex ideas that take

into account a range of human responses and possibilities. If I say cocaine may not be

as damaging as once thought, people interpret that to mean that I am saying that it is

perfectly fine to take cocaine. 7 If I oppose prosecution of pregnant women then I am

heard to be saying that such women have no responsibility for their actions. If I say

that fetuses should not be treated as persons under the law, I am accused of denying

that they have any value at all. None of these assumptions or misinterpretations is


The fact that cocaine may not be more damaging than cigarettes, doesn't

mean that pregnant women should now be urged to use it. Rather, it means that an

unprecedented legal response to pregnant women who use cocaine can't be justified by

claims of this particular drug's unparalleled or exceptional harms. Opposition to

prosecution and other punitive responses does not mean that pregnant women lack

responsibility for their actions. In our current political climate, however, prosecution

and imprisonment appear to be the only mechanisms recognized for holding people

accountable for their actions. But they are not the only ways to encourage responsible

behavior. In fact punishment in some circumstances can be the least effective social


Furthermore, to oppose the recognition of fetal personhood as a matter of law

is not to deny the value and importance of potential life as matter of religious belief,

emotional conviction, or personal experience. Rather, by opposing such a new legal

construct, we can avoid devastating consequences to women's health, prenatal health

care and women's hope for legal equality.

Exploring some of the real issues involving cocaine and pregnancy and how

our discussion of it has been shaped or manipulated by the media coverage of these

issues can help bring some sensible and informed thought to the discussion. With luck

it might also make room for compassion and understanding.

The Villain Cocaine

In the late 1980's and 1990's newspapers, magazines and television were full

of stories documenting the devastating effects of cocaine and predicting a lost

generation irredeemably damaged by the effects of their mother's cocaine use. For

example, in 1991 Time Magazine ran a cover story on the subject. 8

Bold yellow letters read "Crack Kids" followed by the headline: "Their mothers used drugs, and now its

the children who suffer." The face of a tearful child filled the page beneath the words.

Inside, on the table of contents another photograph appears. This one is of a

tiny infant's head, so small that a grown man's hand engulfs it almost completely.

Next to the picture it reads: "A mother's sad legacy: Can the innocent legacies of drug

use be rescued?" The inside story begins: "Innocent victims: Damaged by the drugs

their mothers' took, crack kids face social and educational hurdles and must count on

society's compassion." This time a menacing picture of a distraught Black child

accompanies the text. In fact, as the photographs become more sinister the subjects'

skin color becomes darker.

The same year the New York Times ran a front page story entitled "Born on

Crack and Coping with Kindergarten." 9 The story is accompanied by a photograph of

a school teacher surrounded by young children. Underneath the caption reads: "I can't

say for sure it's crack, said Ina R. Weisberg, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 48 in the

Bronx, but I can say that in all my years of teaching I've never seen so many

functioning at low levels."

Throughout these years medical and popular journals, public school teachers

and judges alike were willing to assume that if a child had a health or emotional

problem and he or she had been exposed prenatally to cocaine, then cocaine and

cocaine alone was the cause of the perceived medical or emotional problem. Rather

than wait for careful research and evaluation of the drug's effect there was, as several

researchers later criticized, a "rush to judgment" that blamed cocaine for host of

problems that the research simply has not born out. 10

Indeed, an article in the medical journal Lancet in 1989 found that scientific studies

that concluded that exposure to cocaine prenatally had adverse effects on the fetus had

a significantly higher chance of being published than more careful research finding no

adverse effects. 11

The published articles, delineating the harmful effects on infants

prenatally exposed to cocaine, reported that brain damage, miscarriages, genito-

urinary malformations and fetal demise as just a few of the dire results of a pregnant

woman's cocaine use. Infants that survived the exposure were described as

inconsolable, unable to make eye contact, emitting a strange high-pitched piercing

wail, rigid and jittery. These early studies, however, had numerous methodologic flaws

that made generalization from them completely inappropriate. For example, these

studies were based on individual case reports or on very small samples of women who

used more than one drug. Researchers often failed to control for the other drugs and

problems the mother might have, and/or failed to follow-up on the child's health. 12

The articles describing these studies were nevertheless relied upon to show that

cocaine alone was the cause of an array of severe and costly health problems.

Like alcohol and cigarettes, using cocaine during pregnancy can pose risks to

the woman and the fetus. More carefully controlled studies, however, are finding that

cocaine is not uniquely or even inevitably harmful. For example, unlike the

devastating and permanent effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, which causes permanent

mental retardation, cocaine seems to act more like cigarettes and marijuana, increasing

certain risks like low birth weight but only as one contributing factor and only in some

pregnancies. 13 Epidemiological studies find that statistically speaking many more

children are at risk of harm from prenatal exposure to cigarettes and alcohol. In fact,

one recent publication on women and substance abuse has created the label "Fetal

Tobacco Syndrome" to draw attention to the extraordinarily high miscarriage and

morbidity rates associated with prenatal exposure to cigarette smoke. 14

By the late 1980's, it was already becoming clear to researchers in the field

that the labels "crack babies" and "crack kids" were dangerous and counter-

productive. 15 If one read far enough in the Time article -past the pictures of

premature infants and deranged children-the story reported that:

[a]n increasing number of medical experts, however, vehemently

challenge the notion that most crack kids are doomed. In fact, they

detest the term crack kids, charging that it unfairly brands the children

and puts them all into a single dismal category. From this point of

view, crack has become a convenient explanation for problems that are

mainly caused by a bad environment. When a kindergartner from a

broken home in the impoverished neighborhood misbehaves or seems

slow, teachers may wrongly assume that crack is the chief reason, when

other factors like, poor nutrition, are far more important.

Even the New York Times article about the crack-exposed children in

kindergarten eventually revealed that researchers: "after extensive interviews [found]

the problems in many cases were traced not to drug exposure but to some other

traumatic event, death in the family, homelessness, or abuse, for example." 16 And

despite the fact that school administrators "rarely know who the children are who have

been exposed to crack.and the effects of crack are difficult to diagnose because they

may mirror and be mixed up with symptoms of malnutrition, low birth-weight, lead

poisoning, child abuse and many other ills that frequently afflict poor children," the

article resorts to crack as the only reasonable explanation for an otherwise inexplicable


In fact, the outcry about cocaine and damaged children occurred at the end of

eight years of Reagan-era budget cuts, many of them in social programs for poor

women and children. As researchers Banks and Zerai noted,

Resources for women and children were seriously affected.

Between 1977 and 1984, maternal and child health block grants were

reduced by one-third. As a result federally mandated comprehensive

health clinics including well-baby, prenatal and immunization clinics

were eliminated. Community and Migrant Heath Centers were cut by

one third and the national health service Corp's budget was reduced by

64% (between 1981-1991). The WIC program did not sustain budget

cuts, but by 1989 it still only served one-half of those eligible. 17

Reports from the Children's Defense Fund for these years described the devastating

consequences of increasing poverty, linking it to a dramatic decline in children's health

and safety. 18

When the headlines might more accurately have been "Born in Poverty and

Coping with Kindergarten" and the real news was there is no such thing as a "crack

kid," Time, the New York Times, and other leading news outlets continued to report

cocaine in pregnancy as an epidemic destroying a generation of children. Even groups

like the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, lead by

Joseph Califano, in an otherwise tempered Annual Report that described their research

on the cost of substance abuse to society, referred to newborns exposed to alcohol and

especially cocaine as "a slaughter of innocents of biblical proportions." 19

These stories and characterizations where not lost on the public officials

looking at the question of substance abuse and pregnancy. One judge, assuming a

knowledge of cocaine's effects that he simply did not have, and revealing his evident

racial bias, admonished a woman accused of having a "cocaine baby":

You know, we've got enough trouble with normal children. Now this

little baby's born with crack. When he is seven years old, they have an

attention span that long [holding his thumb and index finger an inch

apart]. They can't run. They just run around in class like a little rat.

Not just black ones. White ones too. 20

The Public Responds

The public response to the media and medical journal reports was one largely

of outrage. The harshest response was the call for the arrest of the pregnant women

and new mothers who used drugs. Numerous states considered legislation to make it

a crime for a pregnant woman to be pregnant and addicted. 21 Although, not a single

state legislature passed a new law creating the crime of fetal abuse, individual

prosecutors in more than thirty states arrested women whose infants tested positive for

cocaine, heroin, or alcohol. Many of these women were arrested for child-abuse,

newly interpreted as "fetal" abuse. Others, like Jennifer Johnson in Florida were

charged with delivery of drugs to a minor. 22 In that case, the prosecutor argued that

the drug delivery occurred through the umbilical cord after the baby was born but

before the umbilical cord was cut. Still other women were charged with assault with a

deadly weapon (the weapon being cocaine), or feticide (if the woman suffered a

miscarriage), or homicide (if the infant ,once born, died). Some women were charged

with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

While arrests were almost always the result of the action of an individual

prosecutor, in the state of South Carolina there was unprecedented coordination

between health care providers, the prosecutors office, and the police.

In 1989, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, established a collaborative

effort among the police department, the prosecutors office, and a state hospital, the

Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), to punish pregnant women and new

mothers who tested positive for cocaine. Under the policy, the hospital tested certain

pregnant women for the presence of cocaine. Under the policy, the hospital tested

certain pregnant women for the presence of cocaine. Women were tested for the

presence of cocaine to further criminal investigations, but the women never consented

to these searches and search warrants were never obtained.

While the hospital refused to create a drug treatment program designed to

meet the needs of pregnant addicts, or to put a single trained drug counselor on its

obstetrics staff, it did create a program for drug-testing certain patients, their in-

hospital arrest, and removal to jail (where their was neither drug treatment nor

prenatal care); the ongoing provision of medical information to the police and

prosecutor's office; and tracking for purposes of ensuring their arrest. Some women

were taken to jail while still bleeding from having given birth. They were handcuffed

and shackled while hospital staff watched with approval. All but one of the women

arrested were African-American. The program itself had been designed by and

entrusted to a white nurse who admitted that she believed that the "mixing of the races

was against God's will." 23 She noted in the medical records of the one white woman

arrested that she lived "with her boyfriend who is a Negro." 24

While a civil suit in federal court challenging the Charleston practice failed at

the trial level, it is now on appeal. However, the women who sued were successful in

stopping the arrests. The National Institutes of Heath found that research relating to

the arrests violated federal law regarding research on human subjects; and the hospital

agreed to stop facilitating the arrest of patients in a settlement agreement with the

Office of Civil Rights which and been investigating it for race discrimination

violations. 25

As for other legal challenges, courts in twenty-four states have held that

prosecutions of pregnant women are beyond the intent of the law, and in some cases

beyond federal constitutional limits on state power. Only one court, the South

Carolina Supreme Court, has upheld such prosecutions in a case called Whitner v.

State. 26 This decision is now being challenged in the federal courts.

Who are these mothers?

As a report from the Southern Regional Project on Infant Mortality observed:

Newspaper reports in the 1980's sensationalized the use of crack

cocaine and created a new picture of the "typical" female addict; young,

poor, black, urban, on welfare, the mother of many children and

addicted to crack. In interviewing nearly 200 women for this study, a

very different picture of the "typical" chemically dependent woman

emerges. She is most likely white, divorced or never married, age 31, a

high school graduate, on public assistance, the mother of two or three

children, and addicted to alcohol and one other drug. It is clear from

the women we interviewed that substance abuse among women is not a

problem confined to those who are poor, black, or urban, but crosses

racial, class, economic and geographic boundaries. 27

African American women, however have been disproportionately targeted for arrest

and punishment, not because they use more drugs or are worse mothers, but because,

as Dorothy Roberts explains "[t]hey are the least likely to obtain adequate prenatal

care, the most vulnerable to government monitoring, and the least able to conform to

the white middle-class standard of motherhood. They are therefore the primary targets

of government control." 28

Beyond the stock images and prejudicial stereotypes, the media has

given the public little opportunity to meet or get to know the mothers. If we never

learn who they are it is inevitable that their drug use will seem inexplicably selfish and

irresponsible. Yet, if we could meet them and learn their history, we might be able to

begin to understand them and the problems that need to be addressed.

Let me give an example. In the popular television show, NYPD Blue we get to

know the irascible Detective Sipowicz. While he is neither handsome nor charming we

come to care for him. We learn that he is an alcoholic who is able to stop drinking and

improve his life. When he has a massive relapse and behaves outrageously, effectively

abandoning his new wife and their newborn son, committing crimes of violence and

countless violations of his responsibilities as a police officer, we nevertheless want to

forgive him and give him another chance.

We are able to sympathize, at least in part because we have been given the

information about why he has relapsed. His first son, whom he has finally reconnected

with, is murdered, and Sipowicz, who can't handle it emotionally, turns back to the

numbing, relief-giving effects of alcohol.

Sipowicz, in the end, is supported by his police colleagues who cover up for

him and give him another chance. By contrast, when the same program did an episode

involving a heroin addicted pregnant woman, whose drug-habit leads her two older

sons to a life of crime, we never get to know why she has turned to drugs. We do not

know as we did with Sipowicz what could have driven her to this behavior. The

viewer can only assume that her drug use is purely selfish, stemming from a

thoughtless hedonism. Thus, she is not entitled to understanding, sympathy, or the

many second chances Sipowicz's character routinely gets.

But like Sipowicz, pregnant women who use drugs also have histories and

complex lives that affect their behavior and their chances of recovery. We know that

substance abuse in pregnancy is highly correlated with a history of violent sexual

abuse. 29 In one study 70 percent of the pregnant addicted women were found to be in

violent battering relationships. A hugely disproportionate number, compared to a

control group, were raped as children. Drugs appear to be used as a means to numb

the pain of a violent childhood and adult life. Like Vietnam veterans who self

medicated with drugs for their post-traumatic stress disorders, at least some pregnant

women also use drugs to numb the pain of violent and traumatic life experiences. 30

Are their difficult childhoods or their experiences with violence an excuse for

drug use? No. But the information begins to provide some idea of root causes that

might need to be taken into consideration when trying to imagine the appropriate

societal reaction. Will the threat of jail remove the trauma and pain that in many

instances prompted the drug use and stands in the way of recovery? It is not that a

woman who uses drugs is not responsible, but rather that we have to hold her

responsible in a context that takes into account the obstacles, internal and external,

that stand in the way of recovery.

Let me give a few examples. In the Jennifer Johnson Case, judge Eaton, who

initially found Johnson guilty of delivery of drugs to a minor and sentenced her to

eighteen years of probation and court supervision if she ever became pregnant again,

said the following at her sentencing: "The choice to use or not to use cocaine is just

that - a choice." 31 The judge ignored, as most people do, the physiologically addictive

nature of cocaine. Despite the medical evidence as well as long-standing Supreme

Court decisions recognizing that addiction is a chronic disease, marked by numerous

relapses on the road to recovery, judges and the public continue to treat it as volitional

behavior that is simply a matter of will-power.

Because addiction has both physiological and psychological components,

achieving total abstinence or even successfully reducing the harms associated with

drug use is difficult to overcome without help. Indeed the judge viewed Ms.

Johnson's drug use alone as punishable under the law, despite the fact that the United

States Supreme Court has recognized that addiction is a diseases and that to punish

someone for being an addict violates the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and

unusual punishment. 32 Perhaps, however, the judge in the Jennifer Johnson case

assumed that treatment was available for this disease. Unfortunately, then and now,

pregnant women are routinely turned away from drug treatment programs. When

Britta Smith, a woman in the state of Virginia, discovered that she was pregnant, she

looked in the yellow pages for a drug treatment programs that could help her with her

cocaine problem. She was told none took women who depended on Medicaid for

payment. Instead of being able to get the treatment she wanted, she was arrested on

charges of child abuse. 33

All pregnant women, not just poor ones are routinely denied access to the

limited drug treatment that exists in this country. In a landmark study in 1990, Dr.

Wendy Chavkin surveyed drug treatment programs in New York City. She found that

54 percent flat out refused to take pregnant women. 34 Sixty-seven percent refused to

take women who relied on Medicaid for payment and 84 percent refused to take

pregnant crack addicted pregnant women.

One hospital in New York was sued for excluding women from drug

treatment. The program argued that its exclusion of all women was justified and no

different from its medical judgment to exclude all psychotics. 35 While New York State

courts found that such exclusion violated state law, this did automatically increase

needed services. During the Dinkins' administration, however, new programs for

women and children that proved cost effective and successful were created. When

Mayor Guilliani took office, however, he promptly shut down the new programs. 36

Nationally, most of the new programs that have been developed for pregnant women

and mothers are funded only as demonstration projects and primarily with federal

dollars. Funding is unlikely to be renewed in the coming years.

Most of the existing programs, as numerous studies have shown, are not designed to

meet the needs of women. 37 They are based on studies about male drug users and

many rely on an extremely confrontational model that does not work for women,

whose profiles generally include guilt and extremely low self-esteem. Furthermore,

male-oriented programs do not take into account women's child care and family

responsibilities. Many people, however, like Judge Eaton, think women should be

punished for failing to get non-existent treatment. Others disguise punitive policies of

arrest as fair punishment for women who unreasonably refuse offers of voluntary

treatment, when in fact, the "offer" is coerced under the threat of arrest and the

treatment itself often inappropriate or inadequate to help the women.

Other barriers also exist. Judge Eaton ruled that "the defendant also made a

choice to become pregnant and to allow those pregnancies to come to term." The

prosecutor argued that "[w]hen she delivered that baby she broke the law." By saying

this, the judge makes clear that it was having a child that was against the law. If Ms.

Johnson had had an abortion she would not have been arrested - even for possessing

drugs. 38 But, this statement not only reveals a willingness to punish certain women for

becoming mothers, it also reflects a host of widely held beliefs and assumptions about

access to reproductive health services for women.

For example, implicit in this statement is the assumption that Ms. Johnson had

sex and became pregnant voluntarily. Given the pervasiveness of rape in our society,

assuming voluntary sexual relations may not be justified. Perhaps, though, the judge,

like many others, simply thought that addicts have no business becoming pregnant in

the first place. A South Carolina judge put it bluntly: "I'm sick and tired of these girls

having these bastard babies on crack cocaine." Apparently concerned by his candor,

he later explained:

"They say you're not supposed to call them that but that's what they

are. . .when I was a little boy, that's what they called them." 39

On call-in radio talk shows someone inevitably asks why these mothers can't

just be sterilized or injected with Depo Prevera until they can overcome their drug

problems and, while they are at it, their low socio economic status. The consistency of

this view should not be surprising given our country's history of eugenics and

sterilization abuse. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared sterilization of men

unconstitutional, but has never overturned its decision upholding the sterilization of

women perceived to be a threat to society. 40

The suggestion of sterilization, however, is particularly attractive if there is no

explanation about why a pregnant woman with a drug problem would want to become

pregnant or to have a child in the first place. But drug-using pregnant women become

pregnant and carry to term for the same range of reasons all women do. Because

contraception failed. Because they fell in love again and hoped this time they could

make their family work. Because they are "pro-life" and would never have an abortion.

Because when they found out the beloved father of the baby was really already

married, they thought it was too late to get a legal abortion. Because they do not

know what their options might be. Because they have been abused and battered for so

long they no longer believe they can really control any aspect of their lives including

their reproductive lives. Because they wanted a child. Because their neighbors and

friends, despite their drug use, had healthy babies and they believed their's would be

healthy too.

Threat of sterilization is just another punitive response that denies the humanity

of the women themselves. Although Judge Eaton did not propose sterilization as part

of the sentence he imposed on Ms. Johnson, as some judges in related cases have,41 he

undoubtedly assumed that Ms. Johnson could decide, once pregnant, whether or not

to continue that pregnancy to term. Since 1976, however, the United States

government has refused to pay for poor women's abortions and few states have picked

up the costs. 42 In Florida, like most other states, the "choice" Judge Eaton spoke of

does not exist for low-income women.

It was in Florida, after all, where Dr. Gunn was hunted down and murdered for

providing abortions to those women who could afford them. It was also where

Kawana Ashley, another woman from Florida discovered she was pregnant with an

unwanted pregnancy. Ms. Ashley was already raising a child as a single parent and felt

she could not responsibly have another one. Her boyfriend promised to help pay for

the abortion. After waiting and waiting until weeks had passed, she realized he was

not going to help her. She went to a clinic where she found out that she was already

in her second trimester of her pregnancy. The abortion was prohibitively expensive and

neither the state nor the clinic would provide one for free. Ms. Ashley, in an act of

desperation, took a gun and shot herself in the stomach. She survived. The fetus,

weighing two pounds, two ounces was delivered by cesarean section with a wound to

its wrist. It lived briefly but did not survive. Ms. Ashley was charged with murder. 43

Even assuming that Ms. Johnson's religious and ethical belief's would have allowed

her to end her pregnancy, she, like Kawana Ashley, would have found that her

"choices" were much more limited than Judge Eaton assumed.

Lack of access to abortion services is only one of the many barriers that exist

for a drug-addicted pregnant woman who attempts to make responsible "choices."

There are many other barriers that make it extremely difficult for pregnant women on

drugs to get the kind of help and support they need. Access to services for drug-

addicted women who are physically abused is also limited. For example, many

battered women's shelters are set up to deal with women who have experienced

violence, but are not equipped to support a woman who has become addicted to drugs

as a way to numb the pain of the abuse. 44 Other barriers include lack of housing,

employment, and access to prenatal care. As one of the few news stories to discuss

these woman's dilemmas explained:

Soon after she learned she was pregnant, [Kimberly] Hardy [who

was eventually prosecuted for delivery of drugs to a minor] convinced

she had to get away from her crowd of crack users as well as her

crumbling relationship with her [boyfriend] Ronald, took the kids home

to Mississippi for the duration of her pregnancy. But by moving, she

lost her welfare benefits, including Medicaid. Unable to pay for clinic

visits, she had to go without prenatal care. 45

And what about the men in their lives? Their contribution to the problem,

physiologically and socially, are ignored or deliberately erased. Rarely in the media do

we know what has happened to the potential fathers. Their drug use, abandonment,

and battering somehow miraculously disappear from view.

Nevertheless, men often do play a significant role. For example, in California

Pamela Rae Stewart was arrested after her newborn died. One of her alleged crimes

contributing to the child's ultimate demise was having sex with her husband on the

morning of the day of the delivery. Her husband, with whom she had had intercourse,

however was never arrested for fetal abuse. Indeed, the prosecutor's court papers

argued that Ms. Stewart had "subjected herself to the rigors of intercourse," thereby

totally nullifying the man's involvement or culpability. 46

Prosecutors in South Carolina also manage to ignore the male culpability, even

when it is the father who is supplying the pregnant woman with the cocaine or other

potentially harmful substances. Many women arrested in this state were not identified

as substance addicted until after they had given birth, a point at which their drug use

could not even arguably have a biological impact on the baby. Prosecutors argued that

arrest was still justified because evidence of the woman's drug use during pregnancy is

predictive of an inability to parent effectively. But fathers identified as drug users are

not automatically presumed to be incapable of parenting. Indeed, when a man who

happens to be a father is arrested for drunk driving, a crime that entails a serious lack

of judgment and the use of a drug, he is not automatically presumed to be incapable of

parenting and reported to the child welfare authorities. Prosecutor's nevertheless rely

on biological differences between mothers and fathers. Arguing that a man's drug use

could not have hurt the developing baby in the first place. However, studies indicate

that male drug use can affect birth outcome: Studies on male alcohol use have

demonstrated a relationship between male drinking and low birth weight in their

children and a study of cocaine and men suggests that male drug use can also affect

birth outcome. 47

We continue to live in a society with double standards and extremely different

expectations for men and women. Drug use by men is still glorified, while drug use by

women is shameful, and by pregnant women a crime. This could not have been better

demonstrated than by a recent advertising campaign by Absolute vodka. On Father's

day, as a promotional gimmick, Absolute sent 250,000 free ties with copies of the

New York Times Sunday edition. Scores of little sperm in the shape of Absolut vodka

bottles swim happily on the tie's blue background. So while many call for arrest when

a pregnant woman uses drugs or alcohol, fathers who drink are celebrated and, in

effect, urged to "tie one on."

Of course, none of these arguments are made to suggest that women are not

responsible for their actions or that they are unable to make any choices that reflect

free will. Rather, it is to say that popular expectations of what acting responsibly

looks like and notions of "choice" have to be modified by an understanding of

addiction as a chronic relapsing disease, of the degree to which our country has

abandoned programs for poor women and children, and of the time, strength and

courage it takes for a drug addicted woman to confront her history of drug use,

violence, and abandonment. Compassion and significantly more access to coordinated

and appropriate services will not guarantee that all of our mothers and children are

healthy. But medical experts and both children's and women's rights advocates agree

that such an approach is far more likely to improve health than are punishment and


Some people argue, however, that a woman who "chooses" to become

pregnant, and does not end that pregnancy should be held legally accountable for her

actions. Much of the problem with this argument has already been addressed above.

How do we know that a woman chose to become pregnant? Or that she could have

ended her pregnancy? Even assuming that at least some women's choices are

completely free, totally conscious, and completely funded, the consequences of such a

standard of accountability would result in a level of state surveillance and scrutiny of

women's lives that is not only dangerous but also completely unprecedented under our

system of law. As the Illinois Supreme Court explained in rejecting the argument that

a child should be able to sue its mother for injuries caused by her behavior during


It is the firmly held belief of some that a woman should subordinate

her right to control her life when she decides to become pregnant or

does become pregnant. Anything which might possibly harm the

developing fetus should be prohibited and all things which might

positively affect the developing fetus should be mandated under penalty

of law, be it criminal or civil. Since anything which a pregnant woman

does or does not do may have an impact, either positive or negative, on

her developing fetus, any act or omission on her part could render her

liable to her subsequently born child. While such a view is consistent

with the recognition of a fetus' having rights which are superior to

those of its mother, such is not and cannot be the law of this state.

A legal right of a fetus to begin life with a sound mind and body

assertable against a mother would make a pregnant woman the

guarantor of the mind and body of her child at birth. A legal duty to

guarantee the mental and physical health of another has never before

been recognized in law. Any action which negatively impacted on fetal

development would be a breach of the pregnant woman's duty to her

developing fetus, Mother and child would be legal adversaries from the

moment of conception until birth.

If a legally cognizable duty on the part of mothers were recognized,

then a judicially defined standard of conduct would have to be met. It

must be asked, by what judicially defined standard would a mother have

her every act or omission while pregnant subjected to state scrutiny?

By what objective standard should a jury be guided in determining

whether a pregnant woman did all that was necessary in order not to

breach a legal duty to not interfere with her fetus' separate and

independent right to be born whole? In what way would prejudicial

and stereotypical beliefs about the reproductive abilities of women be

kept from interfering with a jury's determination of whether a particular

woman was negligent at any point during her pregnancy?

As the court recognized, to hold women legally accountable would depend on

the "legal fiction" that the fetus is "a separate person with rights hostile and assertable

against its mother." As the court explained:

The relationship between a pregnant woman and her fetus is unlike the

relationship between any other plaintiff and defendant. No other

plaintiff depends exclusively on any other defendant for everything

necessary for life itself. No other defendant must go through biological

changes of the most profound type possible at the risk of her own life,

in order to bring forth an adversary into the world. It is after all, the

whole life of the pregnant woman which impacts on the development of

the fetus. As opposed to the third-party defendant, it is the mother's

every waking and sleeping moment which for better or worse shapes

the prenatal environment which forms the world for the developing

fetus. That this is so is not a pregnant woman's fault: it is a fact of life.

The court concluded that it could not treat women as strangers to their own bodies,

recognizing that "[j]judicial scrutiny into the day-to-day lives of pregnant women

would involve an unprecedented intrusion into the privacy and autonomy of the

citizens " of its state. 48

But What About the Fetus?

Many, however, feel that protection of women's privacy and autonomy ignores

the rights of the fetus. This argument has been borrowed from the rhetoric and legal

grounds developed by the anti-abortion movement in its efforts to gain legal

recognition of fetal personhood and to outlaw abortion. Prosecutors trying women for

their behavior during pregnancy borrow wholesale from the anti-choice legal augments

on behalf of the fetus.

These prosecutors assert that by promoting fetal rights and the view that a

mother's drug use is the same as child abuse, they are somehow protecting fetuses and

children. But just the opposite is true. As every leading health group has pointed out,

threatening punishment of pregnant addicts will accomplish only one thing -deterring

women from health care, including prenatal care, that can ameliorate problems of

substance abuse even if a woman can't stop her drug use altogether. 49 It will also deter

women from what little drug-treatment is available. In fact, since the highly publicized

Whitner decision, some drug treatment programs in South Carolina saw a drop of over

80 percent in the number of pregnant women seeking drug treatment. 50 Punishment

could have even more far-reaching deterrent effects: It might deter pregnant women

from seeking the food they need during pregnancy. While low-income women can use

the federal Women, Infant and Child (WIC) program that provides nutritional

supplements to pregnant women, such programs are required to determine if a woman

is using drugs. Public health workers including those employed by the WIC program

are mandatory child abuse reporters under the South Carolina law. As a result, a

pregnant woman using drugs in South Carolina might not even be able to get the food

she needs without the risk of arrest.

The effect of treating a pregnant drug user as a child abuser will not help

fetuses or children. It will, however, further an agenda to undermine women's rights.

Few people realize that women are not yet recognized as full persons under the law:

In a series of cases, the United States Supreme Court has recognized that the

Constitution provides women with protection against certain forms of discrimination

on the basis of sex. This protection, however, applies only in certain areas such as

employment and education, and then only to a limited extent. 51 Significantly, the

Supreme Court has held that the Constitution itself does not provide protection to

women in many areas involving pregnancy and abortion. 52

For example, the Court

found that it was not a constitutional violation to provide male state employees with

health benefits for all of their health problems but to exclude coverage for women with

health problems associated with pregnancy. The Supreme Court held that this was

discrimination between pregnant persons and nonpregnant persons, not discrimination

between men and women. The Court views a woman's capacity for pregnancy as

something that makes her different from men, and extends constitutional protection

against employment discrimination only where women are similarly situated to, or in

fact, exactly like men. As long as the Supreme Court continues to hold that

discrimination against pregnant women is not sex discrimination, women will not be

equal under the law. 53

The problem with treating the fetus as a person is that women will not simply

continue to be less than equal, they will become nonpersons under the law. No matter

how much value we place on a fetus's potential life, it is still inside the woman's body.

To pretend that the pregnant woman is separate is to reduce her to nothing more than,

as one radio talk show host asserted, a "delivery system" for drugs to the fetus.

It is only by treating the pregnant woman as a stranger to her own body that

people can compare her drug use to a parent who feeds cocaine to her two year old

child. It allows people to ignore the pregnant woman's mental and physical state and

the physiological addiction that compels her to take drugs. As many authors have

noted, pregnant women do not become pregnant and turn to drugs, but are already

addicted when they become pregnant. 54

Nevertheless, some argue that the drug-addicted pregnant woman should be

treated as if her drug use is the same as child abuse and at least one state supreme

court has apparently accepted that view. The Supreme of South Carolina,

distinguishing itself from courts in twenty-four other states, has declared that at least

inside the borders of South Carolina a viable fetus is a person and a pregnant woman

who endangers its health can be found guilty of child abuse. 55

The South Carolina court could not fathom the difference between a stranger

who attacks a pregnant woman and the woman herself. The court argued if the fetus

is not treated as a child under the law, then, "there would be no basis for prosecuting a

mother who kills her viable fetus by stabbing it, by shooting it, or by other such means,

yet a third party could be prosecuted for the very same acts."

But in order for a mother to "stab" or "shoot" the unborn child, she must first cut

through her own flesh, rip apart her own body. Her actions thus have vastly different

physiological and psychological implications than those of a third party who commits

violence, not against his own body, but against that of another person.

Moreover, a parent addicted to drugs can avoid child abuse charges by providing

for her child's needs and by ensuring that the child does not take drugs him or herself.

Because the fetus is inside the woman's body, a drug-addicted pregnant woman may

be a criminal no matter what she does. This is especially clear for a woman who is

pregnant and addicted to heroin. If she stops using heroin, the ensuing effects of

withdrawal could cause fetal death, in which case she would be guilty of murder. If

she seeks a late-term abortion she could be arrested for having an illegal abortion or

committing murder. Alternatively, if she continues her pregnancy and gives life to a

child despite her addiction problem, she could go to jail for ten years as a child abuser.

Because the fetus is in her body, every option available to her is a crime.

If the fetus is a person, there are no limits on the state's power to police and

punish pregnant women and on the power of husbands and putative fathers and even

complete strangers to interfere with women's freedom.

Pregnant women could be prosecuted for drinking alcohol. It has already

happened. Pregnant women could be prosecuted for failing to get sufficient bed rest

or endangering the fetus by having sexual intercourse late in pregnancy. Remember,

that too has already happened. Self-appointed guardians for the fetus could seek to

prevent a pregnant woman with cancer from having chemotherapy that might endanger

the fetus. It has already happened. Courts could order pregnant women to undergo

cesarean sections for the benefit of the life of the fetus, even when such surgery could

cause the woman herself to die. Unfortunately, this has already happened as well. 56

In 1987 Angela Carder, who was approximately twenty-five weeks pregnant,

found out that she had a tumor the size of a football in her lungs. At thirteen she had

been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. She defied predictions of her death

and lived despite chemotherapy and the removal of an entire leg and half her pelvis.

Eventually she married and became pregnant.

When she realized she was having a recurrence of the cancer she made clear to

her doctors and family that above all she wanted to live. Her family felt the same way

and her doctors did not believe they could do anything to save the pregnancy. A

neonatologist at the hospital, however, decided that the fetus ought to be rescued

from Angela's body. The doctor went to the hospital's lawyers, who in turn called a

judge to decide what should be done in terms of the fetus.

A lawyer was appointed for the fetus, and she, along with another lawyer who

appeared on behalf of the fetus, argued that what Angela wanted did not matter since

the fetus had a right to life. Angela's doctors testified that the cesarean section could

kill her and that none of them were willing to perform the surgery.

In the end the cesarean was ordered and performed. . The decision rested

entirely on the view that the fetus had a right to life. The fetus was so premature that

it lived only for a few hours. Angela died two days later, with the cesarean section

listed as a contributing factor in her death.

Although the order was eventually overturned, Angela's case is but one of

many examples of distorted and inhumane health care resulting from the creation of

fetal rights. A husband has sought a court order for visitation of his "child" to keep his

estranged pregnant wife from leaving town. Juvenile courts have taken custody of the

drug-exposed fetus and ordered "it" into drug treatment. In Colorado, state officials

terminated a woman's parental rights to a child before it was even born, arguing that

she was an "unfit pregnant" woman. Furthermore, in South Carolina, despite official

claims that the purpose of prosecution is not to punish women who seek help and take

care of their children, one woman, who had been able to stop using drugs, and who

was working and home raising her three young, healthy children, was forced to serve a

five-year jail sentence for child abuse based on a positive cocaine test at the birth of

her son.

The possibilities for denying women's freedom are not the fantasies of lawyers

engaged in slippery slope arguments, but rather current trends in the ever increasing

effort to win legal recognition of the fetus and to undermine and ultimately abolish

women's rights.


The truth is that we do not have to pit the woman against the fetus to promote

healthy pregnancies or to value life. In fact, creating fetal personhood hurts both

women and the possibilities for healthier pregnancies. We could treat addiction for

what it is, a health problem. We could fund programs designed to meet women's

needs not only during pregnancy, but throughout their lives because we value women

as whole persons. We could respect people's different values regarding fetuses

without creating the legal fiction that fetuses are separate persons. We could commit

to ending poverty, the greatest threat to children's health. We could attempt to develop

a sane drug policy and ensure that health care and reproductive freedom are realities

for all people.

Most people think these goals are too unrealistic to fight for. But is it exactly

because we have given up these goals that there is now so much room for arguments

for punishment, and the protection not of life or health in general but only of fetal life



  1. Lindesmith Center, Cocaine & Pregnancy (1997); Laura E. Gomez, Misconceiving Mothers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).
  2. Linda C. Mayes, R H. Granger, M.H. Nornstein, and B. Zuckerman, "The Problem of Cocaine Exposure, A Rush to Judgment," Journal of the American Medical Association 267 (1992): 406.
  3. Stephan R. Kandall,, Substance and Shadow, Women and Addiction in the United States (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); Mike Grey, Drug Crazy (New York: Random House, 1998).
  4. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997). Linda C. Mayes, R H. Granger, M.H. Nornstein, and B. Zuckerman, "The Problem of Cocaine Exposure, A Rush to Judgment," Journal of the American Medical Association 267
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  6. Katha, Pollitt, A New Assault on Feminism, The Nation (26 March 1990).
  7. Lindesmith Center, Cocaine & Pregnancy.
  8. Time Magazine (13 May 1991).
  9. Suzanne Dale, "Born on Crack and Coping with Kindergarten" New York Times (7 February 1991), A1
  10. Mayes, "The Problem of Cocaine Exposure."
  11. Gideon Koren, Karen Graham, Heather Shear, and Tom Einarson, "Bias Against the Null Hypothesis: the Reproductive Hazards of Cocaine," Lancet (1989); 1, 1440-1442.
  12. Mayes, "The Problem of Cocaine Exposure;" B. Lutiger, K. Graham, T. R. Einarson, G. Koren, "Relationship between gestational cocaine use and pregnancy outcome: a meta-analysis. Teratology (1991); 44; 405-414.
  13. Barry Zuckerman et al., "Effect of Maternal Marijuana and Cocaine Use on Fetal Growth," The New England Journal of Medicine, 320, no. 12, (23 March 1990): 762-768; Deborah Frank, and Barry S. Zuckerman, "Children Exposed to Cocaine Prenatally: Pieces of the Puzzle," Neurotoxicology and Teratology 15 (1993): 298-300; Deborah A. Frank, Karen Bresnahn, and Barry Zuckerman, "Maternal Cocaine Use: Impact on Child Health and Development," Advances in Pediatrics 40 (1993): 65-99.
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  15. American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Substance Abuse, Drug Exposed Infants, Pediatrics 86 (1990): 639.
  16. Dale, "Born on Crack."
  17. Rae Banks and Assata Zerai,, "Maternal Drug Abuse and Infant Health: A Proposal for a Multilevel Model," in African-American and the Public Agenda: The Paradoxes of Public Policy, ed. Sedrick Herring (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1997), 53-67.
  18. Children's Defense Fund, 1994.
  19. Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Annual Report, 1994.
  20. State v. Collins, Transcript of Record (Pickens Cnty., S.C., Dec. 18, 1991).
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  24. Plaintiff's Exhibit 119, Ferguson et al. V. City of Charleston et al., U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, Charleston Division, C/A No. 2:93-2624-1.
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  46. Angela Bonavoglia, "The Ordeal of Pamela Rae Stewart," Ms. (August 1987).
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  48. Stallman v. Youngquist, 125 Ill.2d 267, 531 N.E.2d 355 (1988).
  49. Lynn Paltrow, Punishing Women for their Behavior During Pregnancy, National Institute on Drug Abuse (1997).
  50. Amicus Brief of the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, et. al, submitted in Whitner v. State , United States Supreme Court, No. 97-1562 (1998).
  51. Reva Siegel, "Reasoning from the body: A Historical Perspective on Abortion Regulation and Questions of Equal Protection," Stanford Law Review 44 (1992): 261.
  52. Geduldig v. Aiello, 417 U.S. 484 (1974); Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, 114 S.Ct. 753 (1993).
  53. Ibid.
  54. NAPARE policy statement no. 1, "Criminalization of Prenatal Drug Use: Punitive Measures will be Counter-Productive," National Association on Perinatal Addicition Reserach (Chicago, 1990).
  55. Whitner v. State, 328 S.C. 1, 492 S.E. 2d 777 (1977); Ariela R. Dubler, "Monitoring Motherhood," Yale Law Journal 106 (1996): 935.
  56. Terry E. Thornton, and Lynn Paltrow, "The Rights of Pregnant Patients: Carder Case Brings Bold Policy Inititatives," Healthspan 8 no. 5 (May 1991): 10-16.

This article is re-printed with the author's permission. It was first published in:

, Edited

by Julia E. Hanigsberg and Sara Ruddick, (1999 Beacon Press)


ISBN 0-8070-6787-3