Amnesty International released a new report on the dangerous consequences of prosecuting pregnant women who use drugs. America’s obsession with the “war on drugs” has criminalized addiction and led to the incarceration of millions of Americans across the country. Unfortunately, thanks to Alabama’s “chemical endangerment” law and other “fetal assault” laws like it, this attitude has also criminalized pregnancy.
A 2015 joint investigation by ProPublica and AL.com found that there have been 479 women in Alabama prosecuted for drug use while pregnant between 2006 (the year the law was enacted) and 2015. According to the Amnesty International report, this number is “more than have been documented under any other single law.”
Even though this law was amended in 2016 to exclude prescription drugs recommended by doctors or nurses, this treatment of pregnant women leads to dire consequences that put the health of women and children unnecessarily at risk. As noted in an ACLU op-ed last year and echoed in the Amnesty International report, punitive policies like Alabama’s do not deter drug use. Instead, they deter healthcare, and therein lies the problem. If the outcome lawmakers are seeking is healthier babies, then this approach outright fails.
Pregnant women need regular prenatal care from qualified physicians who can manage high risk health conditions such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, who can screen for serious birth defects like spina bifida, and who can provide important immunizations that keep babies healthier after birth. By enacting policies that criminalize pregnancy, lawmakers are actually endangering those same fetuses they are trying to protect.
Now, it is easy to say drug use is bad for fetal development and leave it at that. But we must also consider access to effective, evidence-based substance abuse treatment in Alabama. Should a pregnant woman who has a drug addiction and wants to quit but cannot find or afford the resources to do so be charged with criminal offenses for the state’s archaic approach to healthcare? If the pregnant woman with a drug addiction can’t quit, can’t get treatment, and doesn’t want to face a possible prison sentence, then this state law is leaving her with one option: abortion.
If Alabama wants to consider itself a “right to life” state, a state that values life and fights to protect it, then it must end chemical endangerment laws that put women and fetuses in greater danger. Alabama must expand access to healthcare services including mental and substance abuse treatment instead of limiting it. And it must increase the number of reproductive health providers like Planned Parenthood that treat low-income women who can’t afford insurance instead of trying to defund them for the provision of constitutionally protected healthcare.
Pregnancy doesn’t change a woman’s individual human rights, and we have and will continue to fight for those rights.
Read the full Amnesty International report here.