A Pregnant Woman Is Not a Meth Lab

By Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project

In the past four years, more than 20 women in Alabama have been prosecuted for no other reason than that they tried to continue their pregnancies while struggling with addiction. Today, the ACLU and the ACLU of Alabama submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals, urging that court to reverse the conviction of one of these women, Amanda Kimbrough.

Ms. Kimbrough was convicted under a law that was passed by the Alabama legislature that makes it a crime to allow children into houses where meth labs are operated. However, Ms. Kimbrough was not charged with manufacturing meth — or any other drug; and she was not arrested in a meth lab, but after her extremely premature son was born, and subsequently died, at the hospital. Confused? You should be. Like so many other women in Alabama who were charged under this statute, Ms. Kimbrough was prosecuted not because she brought a child into a meth lab, but because she tried to continue her pregnancy and give birth to her son, even though she was suffering from a drug dependency.

No one is suggesting that drugs are good for embryos or fetuses. For that matter, neither is smoking (or even just living with a smoker), drinking or eating unpasteurized milk products, or failing to get regular prenatal care. But do we really want to make a pregnant woman’s behavior and choices, any health condition she suffers, or even that she lacks health insurance, a crime because it could hurt the fetus? If we do, then virtually everything a pregnant woman does or does not do could land her in jail, because virtually everything a pregnant woman does or does not do — from what she eats, where she works, and what condition her health was in before she became pregnant — is going to have an affect on her fetus. Allowing the government to exercise such unlimited control over women’s bodies, and every aspect of their lives, would essentially reduce pregnant women to second-class citizens, denying them the basic constitutional rights enjoyed by the rest of us.

Moreover, from a public health perspective, these prosecutions are simply counterproductive. You’ve heard us say this before : Respected medical organizations, such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have long opposed these sorts of prosecutions because they only undermine the health of moms and babies.

If, as a society, we are truly interested in supporting healthy moms and babies, we would not be undermining basic constitutional principles in order to throw the pregnant women and mothers who need health care most into jail. Our efforts should be focused on ensuring that pregnant women get the treatment and support they need. Hopefully, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals — as well as prosecutors across that state and the entire country — will finally agree.

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12 Comments

  1. Kessei
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    I suspect many people think the concern about how this affects mothers is (har har) hystrionic, but it’s not.
    While in NYS, I suffered a miscarriage which resulted in hemorrhaging. I went to the hospital, where I fainted in the ER. I came to while being put on a table, my clothes being cut off me, a cardio team standing by; my blood pressure was being constantly monitored, and it was around 60/40. They put three liters of fluid into me before wheeling me up to surgery for an emergency D&C to stop the hemorrhaging.
    And while all this was going on, as I was laying there in shock and barely coherent with electric blankets around me and needles all over the place, with half the nursing staff of the ER (all female) trying to save my life, I fielded a string of questions from several separate (all male) OBGYNs who asked me if this was a “wanted” baby; if I may have “done something” to result in the miscarriage; if I had any history of “mental illness” or had ever “hurt [my]self deliberately.”
    And, no, it wasn’t because they wanted to know if I’d like to speak with a trauma or grief counselor later.
    Even at the time, it was apparent to me that those questions were an effort to determine if I had attempted to induce an abortion or secure an illegal one.
    To add additional context: I’m white; I was married (my husband and two older children were in the ER with me); I was professionally employed with private health insurance. I was about as protected as any woman gets in our society.
    It “would” reduce pregnant women to second class citizens? “Would” reduce? Where have you been? We’re not even considered HUMAN when we’re pregnant; the fetus gets that designation. We’re just the (broken, faulty, untrustworthy, imperfect) vessel.

  2. Comrade Kevin
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    What is particularly sad about this culture is that we value the lives of children, babies, and fetuses more than that of adults. For example, many state Medicaid programs for children living in poverty will fund badly needed health service for those under the age of 21, then once a person passes that threshold, coverage is somehow no longer provided.
    In DC, I have to rely on Medicaid for dentistry. A few years ago, dentistry was not provided at all, but then a child died of an untreated abscessed tooth. The public outcry was so loud that dental coverage was included.
    This is a horrible tragedy. But had it happened to a fifty year old, it would be easier for people to rationalize not providing care. This is what is really screwed up. Every human life has value and everyone has a basic right to health.

  3. Surfin3rdWave
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    “What is particularly sad about this culture is that we value the lives of children, babies, and fetuses more than that of adults.”
    I agree that EVERYONE should have health coverage, but I don’t think that it’s a flaw that our society values the lives of children more than adults. Children are innocent and haven’t had a chance to live at all.
    I would choose to rescue a newborn baby from a burning building sooner than I would choose to rescue an elderly person, or even a young adult. I can respect the philosophy that all people are entitled to equal care and compassion, but I personally feel that we should put children first in our society.

  4. Surfin3rdWave
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I think that abortion’s unacceptability in the South plays a huge role in this. I live in MS, where meth is popular but abortion is taboo.
    I have a neighbor who is a single father to a very, very sick five-month-old baby whose mother was addicted to heroin during pregnancy. The poor child was in the hospital for three months after she was born and has to take methadone several times a day. I have never seen her do anything besides scream.
    I’ve never met the baby’s mother and I don’t want to judge her, but I don’t understand why she didn’t have an abortion. She didn’t want to be a mother (she signed custody over to daddy ASAP) and knew that the baby would be born addicted to heroin. But she didn’t have an abortion because it would be “wrong”.
    I would never force abortion on anyone or advocate laws that would prosecute addicted moms-to-be, but I do think that this would happen less often if women felt like it was acceptable to have an abortion under these circumstances.

  5. Pantheon
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Is it possible that if you HAD “done something” it would have been important for them to know that, to save you? It doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me that doctors would need to know what caused a problem to help solve it, and it also doesn’t seem that far-fetched for them to assume that a significant percentage of people who tried something like that would lie about it. But then, maybe I just watch too much House. The real question is what did they intend to do with that information if they got it, and since they didn’t get it, its hard to answer that.

  6. Kessei
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Well, that would certainly explain why they kept asking whether it was a “wanted” pregnancy.
    Or…wait, no… it doesn’t.
    Pantheon, it’s not as if I hadn’t thought about the possibility that they were trying to aid treatment. But it just doesn’t jive with what was going on. They were running toxicology tests on my blood, anyway; they did an ultrasound; I had actually already passed the (intact) fetus and brought it with me to the hospital (they sometimes do an analysis of the fetus to see if they can identify a cause for the miscarriage).
    And most miscarriages just happen for no identifiable reason, and it’s not as if there’s anything particularly suspicious about one, or even about hemorrhaging like that. It would be like sitting down with somebody in the middle of having a heart attack and asking, “So, were you using any illegal steroids which could have caused this? Using adrenaline boosters or anything? No? Okay, this is my partner, and he’s going to ask you [the exact same] questions.”
    Give me some credit for being able to interpret my own experiences and interactions. I may have been out of it because of blood loss, but I wasn’t so mentally gone that I couldn’t tell the difference between concerned care-giving and patronizing suspicion.

  7. dark_morgaine
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    I have always been annoyed by the idea that babies are more intrinsically “worthy” of being saved than adults. Every adult was once a child. (Look at me, taking a Ronald Reagan quote and tweaking it to fit my own ends!)
    I don’t think that we should leave children to die in the streets of dysentery or polio, by any means, but for God’s sake, children AND adults are all valued. Do the elderly deserve to die to make way for the young? I say no.

  8. dark_morgaine
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Sending mothers-to-be to prison is a GREAT way to ensure the health of the baby. Because, prisons, you know, are just known for their fabulous health care and supportive environment. (Read: sarcasm)
    I believe that helpless people like infants need to be protected, sure. But I don’t think an infant, and certainly not a fetus, is more human and therefore worthy of protection than its mother. Humans have been carrying children for eons, and things have generally worked out. Just let new mothers be.

  9. pokemontaco.wordpress.com
    Posted July 7, 2010 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    “In the past four years, more than 20 women in Alabama have been prosecuted for no other reason than that they tried to continue their pregnancies while struggling with addiction.
    “Ms. Kimbrough was convicted under a law that was passed by the Alabama legislature that makes it a crime to allow children into houses where meth labs are operated.”
    Did she get arrested because she had the drug in her system, or did she actually live in a house with a meth lab?
    Because yes, I do consider bringing a child or newborn infant into a home with a meth lab abuse. Having an unsafe, unsanitary home is enough to get your kids removed from it-and meth labs are the definition of unsafe.

  10. South
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    Along with everything else that’s wrong with these laws there’s that while drugs are certianly bad for the development of the fetus, so is the mother going cold turkey.
    (Note: I have no knowledge of the longer term post-natal outcomes of maternal drug withdrawl on child health and development)

  11. Surfin3rdWave
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    By my understanding (what I’ve heard from knowing several addicts and living in a meth-dominated town) a mother who quits cold-turkey will probably miscarry if she has a severe addiction.
    If she keeps using it, the fetus will probably survive to term, but it will be very sick.

  12. Mike Crichton
    Posted July 8, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    You find it sad that people who have less capability to affect their life’s circumstances, are given extra protections?

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