Alabama Drug Law Clashes With Abortion Rights

By Victoria Kim 08/04/15

Conservatives in Alabama have found yet another way to attack abortion rights.

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An Alabama statute is challenging the foundation of Roe v. Wade, as evidenced in the case of a 29-year-old pregnant inmate, known only as Jane Doe, who was denied the right to have an abortion based on a meth-related child endangerment law, Newsweek reports.

In July, Doe told jail officials she was in her first trimester and wanted an abortion. Lauderdale County authorities denied her request and based their decision on a 2006 state law known as the “chemical endangerment of a child” statute.

The law’s intent was to penalize parents who set up DIY meth labs in their homes, making it a felony to “knowingly, recklessly, or intentionally” expose a child to “a controlled substance, chemical substance, or drug paraphernalia.”

But over time, the interpretation of the law has changed, as prosecutors began arguing for a broader interpretation that “a child” could be a fetus and “an environment in which controlled substances are produced or distributed” could be a womb.

When the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the word “child” should include eggs, embryos, and fetuses from the moment of conception, it further heightened the potential for pregnant women and new mothers to be held criminally accountable for anything they do during pregnancy that authorities deem potentially harmful to an unborn child.

In response to the ruling, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women released a statement denouncing the decision. “What this ruling means is that every pregnant woman in Alabama will be a criminal suspect and those who ingest any controlled substance—even if it is prescribed and whether or not it will have any effect on her future child—may be arrested and incarcerated,” read the statement from the group's founder and executive director, Lynn Paltrow.

As a result, hundreds of women have been prosecuted under the law. Because she asked for an abortion, the Lauderdale district attorney petitioned a juvenile court to strip Doe of parental rights to her unborn child.

On July 29, two days before rulings were expected in the juvenile and federal court cases, Doe changed her mind, saying in an affidavit that she “arrived at this decision of my own volition and choosing … without any undue influence, duress or threat of harm.”

Lawyers are still in the process of trying to understand what really happened, according to Randall Marshall, legal director for ACLU of Alabama, because Doe was already in the process of arranging an abortion when she was placed in custody, and expressed in an earlier statement that she was “very distraught” at the thought of being “forced to carry this pregnancy to term." The details of her arrest in June have not been made public.

Marshall said that though Doe’s change of heart is highly suspicious and raises “serious red flags,” if this is truly her own decision, “it must be respected.”

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