1) The first, in the most recent New York Times Magazine, describes how Alabama is increasingly handing out long jail sentences to drug-addicted new mothers. The charge? “Chemical endangerment of a child,” a Class A felony in Alabama that carries a mandatory 10-year sentence.
Emma Ketteringham, the director of legal advocacy at the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), is particularly rankled by the use of the “chemical endangerment” statute to prosecute addicted women. The law was originally drawn up to protect children from the dangers of parental meth labs and the like; it was never intended to be used against pregnant women struggling with the disease of addiction. From the Times article:
[Ketteringham] argues that applying Alabama’s chemical-endangerment law to pregnant women “violates constitutional guarantees of liberty, privacy, equality, due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.” In effect, she says, under Alabama’s chemical-endangerment law, pregnant women have become “a special class of people that should be treated differently from every other citizen.” And, she says, the law violates pregnant women’s constitutional rights to equal protection under the law.
It also makes it much less likely that an addicted woman will seek help during her pregnancy, thus putting her child in even greater danger–a point which seems to have been lost on the state’s legislators.
The push to prosecute drug-addicted pregnant women is actually part of the larger effort to pass “fetal personhood” laws (which have been introduced as initiatives and measures in 22 states to date), which declare that a fully constitutional-rights-endowed person is created the moment sperm meets egg. A major problem with this view, according to Lynn Paltrow, executive director of NAPW, is that:
“… there is no way to treat fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses as separate constitutional persons without subtracting pregnant women from the community of constitutional persons.”
In other words, from the moment of conception a woman’s rights would be superseded by those of her fertilized egg.
2) Okay, so getting jailed on a PWA (pregnant-while-addicted) charge may seem like a distant concern for most Americans–the vast majority of pregnant women in the U.S. are not drug-addicted, after all.
But hold on a moment. As the second article (from the Washington Post) points out, the number of pregnant women addicted to prescription painkillers has tripled in the last decade, including many women who are being treated for very legitimate pain issues–not the “typical” drug addict so often reviled in the media.
The Alabama law makes no distinction between “medical” addiction to painkillers (prescribed after a car accident, say), and “recreational” addiction to heroin or crack, and in a way, they’ve got a point. From a baby’s standpoint it doesn’t matter why mom’s addicted, so why not prosecute them all? There hasn’t been a legal stampede to throw the book at moms on Vicodin as yet, but it shouldn’t take a politically ambitious Alabama attorney too long to figure that one out.
Spending a decade in jail for the “crime” of having a baby while addicted to a doctor-prescribed treatment may seem like a stretch today, but today’s stretch is often tomorrow’s norm. As Rush Limbaugh-esque politicians steadily chip away at women’s reproductive rights, it doesn’t sound so far-fetched to me.