This article was written by Alexa Kolbi-Molinas of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.
In the past four years, more than 20 women in Alabama have been prosecuted for no other reason than that they tried to continue their pregnancies while struggling with addiction. Today, the ACLU and the ACLU of Alabama submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals, urging that court to reverse the conviction of one of these women, Amanda Kimbrough.
Ms. Kimbrough was convicted under a law that was passed by the Alabama legislature that makes it a crime to allow children into houses where meth labs are operated. However, Ms. Kimbrough was not charged with manufacturing meth — or any other drug; and she was not arrested in a meth lab, but after her extremely premature son was born, and subsequently died, at the hospital.
Confused? You should be. Like so many other women in Alabama who were charged under this statute, Ms. Kimbrough was prosecuted not because she brought a child into a meth lab, but because she tried to continue her pregnancy and give birth to her son, even though she was suffering from a drug dependency.
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No one is suggesting that drugs are good for embryos or fetuses. For that matter, neither is smoking (or even just living with a smoker), drinking or eating unpasteurized milk products, or failing to get regular prenatal care. But do we really want to make a pregnant woman’s behavior and choices, any health condition she suffers, or even that she lacks health insurance, a crime because it could hurt the fetus? If we do, then virtually everything a pregnant woman does or does not do could land her in jail, because virtually everything a pregnant woman does or does not do — from what she eats, where she works, and what condition her health was in before she became pregnant — is going to have an affect on her fetus. Allowing the government to exercise such unlimited control over women's bodies, and every aspect of their lives, would essentially reduce pregnant women to second-class citizens, denying them the basic constitutional rights enjoyed by the rest of us.
Moreover, from a public health perspective, these prosecutions are simply counterproductive. You’ve heard us say this before: Respected medical organizations, such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have long opposed these sorts of prosecutions because they only undermine the health of moms and babies.
If, as a society, we are truly interested in supporting healthy moms and babies, we would not be undermining basic constitutional principles in order to throw the pregnant women and mothers who need health care most into jail. Our efforts should be focused on ensuring that pregnant women get the treatment and support they need. Hopefully, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals — as well as prosecutors across that state and the entire country — will finally agree.