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Alabama Prosecutes Addicted Moms

Mothers whose newborns test positive for drugs face possible jail time.

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Criminal? Thinkstock

By May Wilkerson

04/26/12

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The New York Times reports on the criminalization of mothers with drug problems. Heather Capps is a 25-year-old Oxycodone addict from Alabama, who became addicted after she was prescribed the drug for scoliosis pain. When she found out she was pregnant, she feared that withdrawal would harm her unborn baby. When he was born, he tested positive for Oxy, and she was arrested. In most states, when a newborn tests positive for drugs, the case is handled by child services, not law enforcement. But under an Alabama law, the mother can face jail time for "chemical endangerment" of a child—including a fetus. The law was introduced in 2006 to protect kids from meth labs. But since then, nearly 60 Alabama mothers have been prosecuted after their newborns tested positive for drugs. Opponents of the law say drug use during pregnancy should be treated as a health issue, not a crime, and that criminalizing pregnant women may deter them from seeking treatment. "I think what you're looking at here is a failure to understand that addiction is a disease of the brain," says Dr. Barry Lester, the director of the Center for the Study of Children at Risk at Brown University. "You are looking at people who think that these are horrible women who are rationally, willfully hurting their kids, but it's more complicated than that. Science has shown that addiction is a disease like any other mental illness, and absolutely treatable."

The law also raises controversy over a woman's right to choose, with advocates of the law arguing for the rights of the unborn baby. Mitch Floyd, Alabama's most passionate prosecutor of chemical-endangerment cases, says "It's a shame that babies need to be protected from their mothers, but sometimes they do, and that's our job." But the law can also be seen to violate a mother's rights over her body. Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women argues, "We can value the unborn as a matter of religion, ethics or experience, but we can’t do that as a matter of law and still value pregnant women.”

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