When I was a senior in high school one of my classmates was pregnant and abusing cocaine during her whole pregnancy. This upset me so greatly and it still does today when I think about it. I felt angry with the mother, concerned and scared for the child, and I also felt confused about exactly what consequences the mother would face if anyone ever found out. Chapter fourteen in our textbook covers “Fetal Abuse”: The Case of Drug-Exposed Infants, so naturally I became very interested on the subject. One of the issues brought up is criminal court response and whether the use of illegal drugs during pregnancy should be prosecuted. This is a controversial issue in our society that is very important to me. Currently, no state has passed legislation that actually makes it a “crime” to abuse drugs while pregnant. “Instead, criminal prosecutions have been based on existing criminal laws, which were never designed or intended to govern prenatal conduct.” (Sagatun, Edwards 1995)
One of the main controversies within this topic is the question of fetal person hood by the law. Fetuses hardly have any legal rights since they are not considered to be children. Abortion rights advocates say that these laws may prevent women from receiving pre-natal treatment. They think that the women will be scared of getting caught. A spoke person for the National Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League says, “Women do have a responsibility, to have a healthy outcome if they’ve chosen to carry to term.” The executive director of the national anti-abortion group Alliance argues, “Why is it that, if a child is wanted, it is a patient, and if not, it’s OK to get rid of it?” (Zeller 1998)
Those against criminalizing “fetal abuse” also argue that it interferes with a woman’s constitutional rights to privacy. According to Paltrow, “recognizing fetal abuse as a crime moves us toward criminalizing pregnancy itself because no woman can provide the perfect womb. A woman should not give up her legal rights just because she chooses to become pregnant.” (Paltrow, 1989) The concept of gender discrimination is also brought into play because drug-abusing women would be getting prosecuted and drug-using male partners don’t face any type of consequences.
In 1992 in the Case of Johnson v. Florida, a mother was convicted of two counts of delivering a controlled substance to another person, because of her use of cocaine during her pregnancy. The mother appealed and the Florida Supreme Court reversed the convictions. They said that they did not intend for the word “deliver” to include passage through the umbilical cord. The court stated that they realize that drug abuse is a very serious national problem, “however, prosecuting women for using drugs and “delivering” them to their newborns appears to be the least effective response to this crisis.” (Sagatun, Edwards 1995) In, 1984, a lower court in Illinois, ruled that the fetus who was five pounds at the time of the pre-natal injuries was a legal person. However, in 1988 the Illinois Supreme Court did reverse the decision and ruled that the mother cannot be prosecuted criminally.
Currently South Carolina has the harshest law that pregnant women who abuse drugs or alcohol can be punishable by jail time. Attorney General of South Carolina Charlie Condon claims the 3-2 decision as “a landmark decision for protecting children.” This decision was made with the eight-year prison sentence of Cornelia Whitner, whose son tested positive for cocaine use after he was born. (Washington Times, 1996) Charlie Condon instructs prosecutors and social workers to monitor and punish pregnant women who abuse drugs. Movements like this are giving the fetus legal rights at the time of conception.
A great example of what criminalizing fetal abuse can accomplish is Deborah Zimmerman who was accused and charged with trying to kill her six-month daughter before she was born. Her daughter was born with a blood-alcohol level of 0.199 when delivered. That is almost twice the level to make an adult legally drunk. She was born with facial abnormalities, which include a compressed nose and wide set eyes. She was charged with homicide and reckless injury. Another case took place in Manitoba, Canada. The judge ordered the woman, who was addicted to sniffing solvents, into a drug treatment faculty until her baby was born. She had been sniffing paint thinner, glue and other solvents for eight years. Her two other children had already suffered neurological damage because of it.
Researchers are finding more and more potential disabilities and health problems in infants born to drug-abusing mothers. (Chisholm 1998) Sniffing solvents causes mental retardation. Alcohol causes abnormally low weight, small length at birth, small head circumference, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome causes growth deficiency, physical abnormalities, and central nervous system dysfunction. Marijuana causes increased crying, low birth weight/ small length, difficulty eating or sleeping, and spitting up between feedings. Heroin causes low birth weight, increased crying, and difficulty eating or sleeping. LSD causes behavior problems as the child ages and violent temper tantrums. Women who abuse drugs are more likely to be poor and have improper nutrition. They usually lack pre-natal care and are at risk for domestic violence. A lot of times they also abuse more then just one kind of drug.
The worst drug that a mother can abuse is crack. When a pregnant mother takes a hit of crack cocaine, the fetus loses sufficient blood and air, and suffocates briefly. The mother is high for about twenty minutes while the cocaine stays in the fetus’s system for about two weeks. In the womb the child is re-exposed because the crack remains in amniotic fluid surrounding the baby. When the baby is born it goes through severe withdrawal. These babies are very hard to console and will cry for hours on end. They are crying because they are in a lot of pain and don’t even like to be touched. (Florence 1998)
When it comes down to it, these women, addiction or not, are intentionally hurting their child. They are perfectly aware that they are doing drugs and could be doing permanent damage to their child, born or un-born. The CAPTA (Child Abuse Prevention And Treatment Act) and (Public Law 104-235) defines child abuse as “at a minimum, any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emontial harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or act or failure which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” Clearly, when women abuse drugs while pregnant it is a form of child abuse. Child neglect, which is a form of child abuse, includes allowing the child to participate in drug and alcohol abuse. These so-called mothers are not only allowing their child to participate in drug and alcohol use but are forcing them to.
I feel that yes, women who abuse drugs while pregnant, should be able to face prosecution. “National hospital studies estimate that from 10 to 25 percent of all babies born in the United States are exposed to drugs before birth.” (Sagatun, Edwards 1995) This is a very serious problem that can not be ignored anymore. There are so many factors that these mothers are effecting when they decide to get high. The long-term effects of what can happen to the little baby inside of them that can not “just say no” to drugs “also have an impact upon public health, social welfare, education, and the courts. The long-term costs to society of care for substance-exposed infants are staggering and may continue for the rest of their lives. The educational system is now just beginning to experience the tremendous problems that these children represent in the schools in terms of learning disabilities and behavioral and psychological malfunctions.” (Sagatun, Edwards 1995)
In conclusion, I would like to add what came of, Jamie, the girl that I went to high school who decided to sniff coke during her whole pregnancy. She had a beautiful baby girl who, luckily, came out perfectly healthy. But the story doesn’t end there; Jamie is now a heroine addict and has absolutely no contact with her daughter whatsoever. Her daughter is now living with grandparents after she got bounced around for the first year of her life from place to place because her mother was unfit. It just shows that any women addicted to drugs in not fit to be a mother, and something should be done before it is to late for the child.