A 24-year-old mother in Utah has been charged with a second-degree felony based on accusations that she endangered her child by using methamphetamine while pregnant, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Her case fits into the troubling trend of criminalizing pregnant women, even when there’s no scientific evidence that their drug use actually harmed their child.
The woman had an emergency C-section at 39 weeks of pregnancy, and law enforcement officials believe that her meth use played a role. “Being that her child was only 39 weeks gestational age, it was surmised that the use of methamphetamine caused [the woman] to go into labor,” police wrote in the charges. The officers did not discuss the health of the baby.
Regardless of the alleged connection to meth, 39 weeks gestation is not a problematic time to give birth. In fact, medical professionals consider that to be full term. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), “early term” begins at 37 weeks, “full term” begins at 39 weeks, and “late term” begins at 41 weeks. It’s not entirely unusual for women to give birth before that point, either. March of Dimes runs a campaign encouraging women and their doctors to stop scheduling early term C-sections for non-medical reasons.
“When doctors are responsible for contributing to prematurity because of this practice of encouraging unnecessarily early Cesarean surgery, that’s a health issue. We don’t go around arresting those doctors,” Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), pointed out.
Paltrow’s organization closely tracks cases like the one in Utah. NAPW has documented hundreds of incidences of women being arrested, jailed, and stripped of custody for using drugs while pregnant. Since using drugs during pregnancy is not actually a crime, these women are typically charged under broad child endangerment laws, even though the child in question is still inside the womb. NAPW believes that’s a dangerous trend.
“It’s a precedent that allows the concept of child endangerment to be applied to all pregnant women. Once you decide that prosecutors and police officers have a role in prenatal care, there is no limiting principle,” Paltrow said. “The child endangerment statute isn’t limited to illegal drugs.”
By that logic, every pregnant woman who has a miscarriage, a stillbirth, or an early pregnancy could be subject to scrutiny. In fact, across the country, this is already happening. Law enforcement officials began cracking down on pregnant women in the 1980s, during the height of the War on Drugs, because they were considered to be easier targets. And today, new mothers continue to be tested for drugs, arrested, and thrown in jail.
“Do we arrest new fathers who come into the emergency room who test positive for drugs? This is not really about arresting pregnant women because they use drugs. This is arresting women because they became pregnant, making them vulnerable to charges of child endangerment for risking harm to a newborn,” Paltrow explained.
Although the mainstream media has repeatedly stoked fears about “crack babies,” “meth babies,” and “ice babies,” there’s not actually any definitive scientific evidence that being exposed to drugs in the womb causes long-term harm to children. Research into cocaine has debunked that myth, and since meth is a chemically similar drug, researchers suspect most of the same conclusions hold. Illicit drugs can contribute to generally less healthy pregnancies, but the specific effects that researchers have been able to attribute solely to drug use are relatively mild. Nonetheless, this issue hasn’t gone away. Earlier this month, the Tennessee legislature passed a first-of-its-kind measure to subject women to criminal assault charges if they use drugs during their pregnancy.
There are several issues with how this punitive approach to pregnant women operates in practice. First of all, it disproportionately targets low-income women of color — the vast majority of cases that NAPW has logged involve African American mothers. Furthermore, it’s counterproductive from a public health standpoint. All of the major medical associations oppose threatening to arrest pregnant women for using drugs because that often dissuades women from getting the medical attention they need.
And this approach to women who use drugs also contributes to a persistent stigma about their ability to make moral choices.
“Many people are willing to assume that if a pregnant women has used a criminalized drug, she doesn’t care about her baby. But pregnant women who use drugs love their babies as much as other parents do, and there’s no research that finds they’re more likely to harm their children than any other parents,” Paltrow noted. “We really need to ask, who are these mothers? What has happened to them? What are the structural, economic, and social conditions that they’re living in that might really have something to do with the birth outcome, far more than any individual action or decision they make?”