Seems like every day, I run across yet another news piece about new laws being put in place to protect fetuses from their mothers' bad decisions. Last week, I read about a woman in South Carolina whose six week old baby girl died because she supposedly overdosed on her mother's drug tainted breast milk. This week, I read about a new law in Tennessee which explicitly spells out that drug addicted pregnant women can be criminally prosecuted.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think women should be drinking alcohol excessively or using illegal drugs when they are pregnant. But I don't think putting more people in prison is a good way to solve this problem. I can't imagine that most women get addicted to drugs while they are pregnant. I am willing to bet that most of them become addicts before they become pregnant. Illegal drug use is known for promoting common sense… I am guessing that a lot of the women who get pregnant while they are using drugs are not using birth control. Seems to me that it makes just as much sense to make birth control more affordable and accessible to women as it does to put them behind bars for drug addiction while pregnant.
I understand that women who are pregnant have a responsibility toward their unborn children. But if we don't have affordable, accessible health care and then we threaten at risk pregnant women with prison, how can we hope to help them? Tennessee's new law does include a clause that would take the threat of prison away for pregnant women who "voluntarily" enter drug treatment. That, to me, seems pretty pointless, though. Because getting over an addiction successfully requires being invested in the process. While some drug addicted pregnant women may truthfully be ready to stop abusing drugs for their child's sake, I would guess that a lot of them won't be. But they may try "treatment" as a way of avoiding prison. It may work for some of them, but for others it will be a waste of time and money.
America already incarcerates a whole lot of people. I know that prisons are a "big business" in the United States, because there are a lot of private companies that run them. Foster care is also kind of a big business. A lot of good people go into foster parenting because they want to help children. But other people are foster parents because they want to be paid… And some of them go into the "business" of foster parenting because they want to abuse or exploit kids. Obviously, we do have to have a place for children if their parents are truly dangerous or unfit and there's nowhere else for them to go, but there is a shortage of truly high quality foster homes for kids in need. Rather than trying to offer non-threatening help to the child's natural but drug addicted parents or placing the child with their families, Tennessee apparently wants to pre-emptively put their mothers behind bars and then place the children in an environment where they may suffer abuse and neglect anyway. And then we give their parents a criminal record, which makes it even harder for them to get back on a law abiding path.
I worry that we're creeping dangerously close to legislation that would make pregnant women a "special class" of people subjected to laws that non-pregnant people are. Take, for instance, this case in Memphis, Tennessee. A woman had an accident and smelled of alcohol. Though she blew a .045 on her breath test, she was convicted of DUI-child endangerment because she told the police that she was four months pregnant. Had she not been pregnant, she probably would have gotten a ticket for whatever caused her to crash. Given the fact that she still could have chosen to have an abortion at that point, it seems pretty crazy that she would be slapped with a DUI-child endangerment charge. Not that I think she was right to drink and drive, especially while pregnant… more that I think one set of standards is being applied to one gender and not the other. After all, a man would not be charged under the same circumstances since men (besides the so-called pregnant man) can't be pregnant.
Like I said, it's not that I don't think something needs to be done about women abusing drugs or alcohol while they are pregnant. Babies born substance addicted can negatively affect society, whether it be because they may end up with medical problems that are a drain on the system or because they may grow up to be addicts themselves. It's not that I don't think drug addicted parents don't have a responsibility to clean themselves up. But I just don't think warehousing people with drug problems is the way to handle the issue. There has to be a more progressive, more productive way to handle this issue besides locking up more people and putting more kids in the foster care system.