Punishing Women for Their Behavior During Pregnancy: An Approach That Undermines the Health of Women and Children

January 13, 2006

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For more than a decade, law enforcement personnel, judges, and elected officials nationwide have sought to punish women for their actions during pregnancy that may affect the fetuses they are carrying (Gallagher 1987). Women who are having children despite substance abuse problems have been a particular target, finding themselves pros- ecuted for such nonexistent crimes as 3fetal abuse2 and delivery of drugs through the umbilical cord. In addition, pregnant women are being civilly committed or jailed, and new mothers are losing custody of their children even when they would be capable parents. Meanwhile, State legislators have repeatedly introduced substance abuse and child welfare proposals that would penalize only pregnant women with addiction problems.