Pubdate: Thu, 27 Nov 2003
Source: The Dominion Post (WV)
Copyright: 2003 The Dominion Post
Cited: National Advocates for Pregnant Women


Regina D. McKnight was found guilty in 1991 of killing a fetus by
using cocaine. Surveys in California have put the number of women who
take illegal drugs during pregnancy at about 11 percent.

NEW YORK (KRT)-- Stacey Gilligan is accused of drinking so much vodka
during her eighth month of pregnancy that her baby was born drunk.

Tayshea Aiwohi is charged with consuming such huge amounts of crystal
meth while she was pregnant that her son died of methamphetamine
poisoning two days after his birth.

Regina McKnight was convicted of using so much cocaine during her
pregnancy that her baby was stillborn.

Across the country, prosecutors increasingly are leveling criminal
charges against women who abuse drugs or alcohol while pregnant. The
charges range from misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a
child to criminal homicide. At least two women who were convicted were
sentenced to life in prison.

The prosecutions are rousing intense passion on every side of the
issue. Abortion rights supporters are furious about the prosecutions,
charging that a fetus is not a constitutionally protected person.
Substance abuse counselors claim that an unintended side effect of the
prosecutions has been to make drug-addicted pregnant women reluctant
to seek treatment. Family and child advocates counter that prosecuting
these women is the only way to send a message that America values its

"This is certainly a complicated one," said Dr. Mary Ellen Rimsza,
chairwoman of Arizona's Child Fatality Review Board and a member of a
governor-appointed commission studying whether positive drug tests on
newborns should be grounds for the state to accuse a mother of child

South Carolina, where more than 70 such cases have been heard in the
courts since 1989, has led the charge on these prosecutions. But
despite being one of the earliest and most aggressive states in
bringing charges against drug-abusing mothers, South Carolina now has
plenty of company: Texas, New York, Arizona, Hawaii, Utah.

In 1989, Illinois became the first state to charge a woman with
manslaughter after her baby was stillborn, allegedly from toxic levels
of cocaine. A Rockford, Ill., grand jury refused to indict, and
prosecutors have since been reluctant to bring such charges.

Law-enforcement officials in Riverside County, Calif., known as the
nation's methamphetamine capital, have declared these prosecutions "a
top priority."

"Sometimes the cases and the effects of drug abuse on children and
infants are so egregious that I believe we are left with no other
option but to prosecute," said Riverside County District Attorney
Grover Trask.

Plenty of people disagree, vehemently. Lynn Paltrow, director of
National Advocates for Pregnant Women, is passionate about the issue,
and she gets so animated when discussing it that she can scarcely
decide where to start her criticisms of such prosecutions. To begin
with, she says, criminal charges do not address the root of the
problem: the woman's addiction.

"People don't become addicts because they want to do harm to their
own bodies or, if they are pregnant, to harm the fetus in their
body," Paltrow said.

Just as worrisome, she said, is what may be a chilling, inadvertent
consequence of the highly publicized prosecutions: that other
drug-addicted pregnant women will not seek treatment -- or even
prenatal care -- because they are terrified they will wind up in jail
or lose other children they may already have. About 50 public heath
organizations, including the American Public Health Association and
the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, have denounced the
prosecutions for the same reason.

The experience of at least one state that has pursued these
prosecutions indicates Paltrow's fear may be well-founded.

In Utah, where in the late 1990s there were several high-profile
prosecutions of women for substance abuse during pregnancy, state
officials saw coinciding drops in the requests for treatment and help
from drug-addicted women. Before the prosecutions began, the Pregnancy
Risk Line, a toll-free service operated by the state's public health
department, typically took at least four calls a month from a pregnant
woman seeking drug counseling. But after news of the prosecutions hit
the newspapers and television shows, those calls dropped to almost
zero per month.

"Women were showing up at hospitals in droves to deliver babies
having had no prenatal care and no substance abuse treatment," said
Lynn Martinez, director of the hotline and of the state's birth
defects and genetics program. "When asked why they hadn't sought
help, their answers were almost universal: They were worried they
would either lose their children or be prosecuted. So suddenly you had
a double whammy: babies exposed to drugs and babies not getting
prenatal care."

Just as worrisome to Paltrow -- and to many who oppose such
prosecutions -- is whom prosecutors will target most often.

"This has become a general assault on poor people, and
disproportionately on minorities," said Richard Wexler, director of
the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "Take a guess
which pregnant women are most likely to be screened for drug abuse
when they walk through the doors of a hospital. It isn't some upper-
or middle-class woman who can afford the best of everything. But those
women often are just as likely to be using substances during pregnancy
that put their child at risk."

In California, where prosecutors are aggressively prosecuting women
who use drugs while pregnant and have vowed to step up punitive
measures, the statistics are even more grim. Statewide surveys have
put the number of women who take illegal drugs during pregnancy at
about 11 percent, and the drug being used most often seems to be

"It's amazing to me that so much of the debate is over what is best
for the mother, what is fair to her," Trask said. "I think it's long
overdue that we focus on the effects addictive drugs like
methamphetamine are having on the children. We have to send the
message that, hey, if you don't care about yourself, that's one thing.
But people need to understand that we expect them to care about the
innocent children they are bringing into the world."

Trask disputed the criticism that pregnant women who seek treatment
for their addictions will be prosecuted upon entering a hospital or
treatment facility.

"If they are in programs, we won't prosecute them."

But that isn't how it often works, critics insist. In South Carolina,
Paltrow said several pregnant women went looking for treatment at a
hospital only to leave the facility hours later in handcuffs.
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