The justice system is on crack, baby

This is not the first time I started answering a post on Women’s Health News and decided that my reply was WAY too long and needed its own post on here. Rachel posted about a Mississippi case in which a woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for having a stillborn baby test positive for cocaine. (Oops! Correction, the case was in South Carolina, thanks Rachel! And the other cases I was thinking about were in Alabama, not Mississippi. Whoops whoops.)

This is such a touchy subject. Of course no one recommends or condones prenatal cocaine use. Or cocaine use, in general. The toughest ethical decisions, in medicine and in law, involve unsympathetic subjects. But sentencing a poor addict who just suffered a stillbirth to twenty years in prison for homicide due to aggravated child abuse? I think this is a very nuanced conversation. I would love to spend a few days researching this and then write an annotated reaction, but I am going to write up my opinions on this so far, then continue to write on this whenever I come across a journal article or a new court case. Otherwise, I would never finish and finally address it.

First, drug use, treatment and punishment are a fiasco in this country. There is too much of a stigma for seeking treatment. Addiction is not treated as a disease, it is treated as a crime and a personal failing. We spend more government money preventing our children from using birth control than preventing them from using drugs.

There is a lack of adequate, effective, affordable or free treatment programs. I shadowed at the county rehab here. I have not been to their perinatal treatment center, but looking up the links has made me want to ask about shadowing over the summer. I know that the residential rehab I went to was full and had a waiting list. Their relapse rate was about 90%, and this is with the full spectrum of treatment drugs available. I am not sure how pregnancy limits detox protocol, but many of the drugs used, like benzodiazepenes (the valium and xanax family) for opiate withdrawal, are also addictive and not recommended for use during pregnancy, in general.

I live in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. Our beds are full and our numbers aren’t great. I am not sure what the situation is in rural Mississippi, where this particular court case played out, but I am fairly sure they don’t have local, top of the line facilities available with diverse programs. So, if a woman is an addict and is pregnant, before we blame, sentence, and punish her, we should examine what her options were for treatment.

Did she even have prenatal care? There is only one abortion provider (Guttmacher says 2 in 2004, but I found articles from 2006 saying they are down to one in Jackson) in the entire state of Mississippi, so reproductive planning wasn’t reasonably available. There is also a 24 hour waiting period, so even if she could get to the abortion provider and pay for the abortion, she would also have to pay for an overnight stay in the area. And, there is no public funding of abortion unless there is “life endangerment, rape, incest or fetal abnormality”. So, being a drug addict without funds for an abortion or rehab would not qualify you for anything except for, well, prison, it seems.

I have heard people in comments on threads on this subject say birth control is available, so why didn’t she use that? I am not sure how easily available free birth control is in Mississippi, but considering at least half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, do we really expect a poor addict to be in more control of her fertility than at least half of the pregnant women in the entire country?

Now let’s talk about pregnancy, motherhood, and the unreasonable expectations placed upon mothers. Women are condemned and blamed for everything that goes wrong with their pregnancies and children, and are expected to abide by an unreasonably high standard of lifestyle. Someone told me a story at school about a woman who spilled a beer by accident on her baby at a restaurant. “What was she even doing drinking a beer?” my classmate said nastily, and the other students, all non parents, agreed.

What? A woman can’t drink a beer once she has a child? I am not promoting alcoholism. I think alcohol causes much more problems during and after pregnancy than cocaine, even. Unlike marijuana and many other illicit drugs, believe it or not, alcohol is linked to a definite set of debilitating birth defects. But seriously, a woman can have a beer with dinner at a restaurant, even if she is also a baby mother. Even if she is breastfeeding, I would argue, if it’s one beer. I have heard stories of women being harangued over diet cokes, coffee, sushi, you name it, by supposedly well meaning strangers or coworkers.

What happens if a woman eats brie or sushi, even knowing the risks, which include miscarriage and stillbirth? What is she engages in sex with a partner with visible herpes lesions? Drinks excessive coffee? Smokes cigarettes? None of these are illegal, but are linked to miscarriage and fetal demise. What if she does do something illegal, like smokes marijuana, but it is not linked to birth defects, miscarriage, or fetal demise? What is she is an alcoholic? It is not illegal to be an alcoholic, but is being pregnant for nine months equivalent to choosing to drive while intoxicated, which is illegal? I would assume that regularly purposefully blowing cigarette smoke in your child’s face would be considered a form of abuse, but only 20% of pregnant smokers quit smoking when they are pregnant. Are they all child abusers? What if they miscarry? Are they homicidal child abusers? What if their baby dies of SIDS, and their husbands are smokers? Are the husbands homicidal child abusers, subject to imprisonment?

How about the prison system? It is a mess for mothers. If I was pregnant and needed help, but was doing something illegal, there is no way I would risk being put into this system.

I think putting a woman in prison for 20 years in this situation is not the right answer. There is no pretty side to this, no happy option to support, but 20 years of prison is not the right answer. Being a drug addicted woman with a dead baby is bad enough. Adequate counseling, detox, social services, drug testing and birth control is what I would think would be a better way to spend tax dollars.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “The justice system is on crack, baby

  1. Thanks, Hillary, those are all important points. The particular case that was dismissed was out of South Carolina, but I think the limited resources argument (as well as the rest of your commentary) still applies.

  2. MomTFH

    Oh, was it South Carolina?: Why did I think it was Mississippi? I know they have been coming down on pregnant meth users there – I think I got my story locations confused. Whoops!

  3. There’s one story in Mississippi right now too – I think this may be more common than we assume/becoming more common.

  4. j-rap

    This is a sticky ball of wax, isn’t it? And a lot of this is, well, opinionated.

    I do think it’s child abuse to smoke, drink, use drugs, etc. while pregnant.

    I don’t think she should be imprisoned for 20 years. I don’t think she had enough resources to deal with this.

    Sushi and brie are so outside the world of cocaine use. Yes, they are linked to increased miscarriage incidence; but have you ever heard of a newborn suffering from withdrawals from sushi? My husband might joke that he has a jones for some, but nobody ever got addicted to raw fish or soft cheeses in reality. I do get the parallel you’re drawing here though.

    Cocaine is illegal. In fact, being drunk in public is illegal. Serving alcohol to an alcoholic is illegal. Smoking in certain areas is illegal. Social services gets involved and child abuse charges are often filed (I’ve heard) when a pregnant woman is abusing drugs. I do wish there were more resources for addicts and more resources for low income and impoverished moms…

    I wish there were more programs to educate and distribute birth control, and I wish there were abortion providers in every county with funding to help those who can’t afford them. Even here in western WA where there are providers in almost every town; it still costs about 400 to 600 dollars even for those with no income.

    I know I’m going to offend by saying this; but this is how I feel. It is an abusive action to force substance abuse on another being. It is especially abusive to force that substance abuse on your unborn child when resources are available to help. I know many many women in this privileged goegraphical area who do not stop smoking while pregnant despite all of the help and resources and support available to them.

    This woman you are talking about, it sounds like she didn’t have the resources needed to address her addiction (btw; detoxing without medical care can be fatal to the addict as well as almost certainly causing a miscarriage; depending on the addict’s health and degree of addiction). This is a sad situation; I’m glad the case was dropped and I hope she is able to get help now; though it’s rather late for her child.

  5. MomTFH

    I am not offended that you think it is an abusive act to force substance abuse on another human being. I just am happy you realize that it is a nuanced idea, and that we are not just talking about poor crackheads here. Rich white women continue smoking (and some drink, too), both of which are legal activities, and their babies-to-be can also suffer. And, many actions that women take can threaten a pregnancy. I don’t think these most of these actions are condonable, and not all of them are identical (eating brie is not as bad as doing cocaine, of course). But, I am not sure prison or criminal charges is the answer.

  6. j-rap

    lol I didn’t think you would be offended by that… it is not a very popular sentiment however; among women who chose not to quit smoking while pregnant, or friends and family members of that same group. (likely someone reading smokes)

    I think this is one of those classless scourges; it happens among the poor and the rich alike.

    I’m with you on all of this. We are in desperate need of redesigning our financial decisions as a society; this is one of many areas that is sorely lacking! Sigh… I think getting stories like this out, talking about it is a great way to start to foster change.

  7. lunarmama

    Thanks for posting this. you make some really good points.

  8. Prison is a bad answer for so many offenses. Nice discussion – I agree with most of your points (which makes for a nice boring comment).

  9. Yes, MS has only one abortion clinic, in the capital. Women who want abortions — just as many women who want to give birth have to go out of state to have a good provider. I live in the north part of the state, and my midwives as well as my sisters two hospitals, were in TN. The three or perhaps four nearest hospitals that have L&D units, I would only use reluctantly or in a true emergency. They’re fine for people who just say, “yes, doctor,” but if you actually want to make a decision (like getting out of bed after admittance), you need to go elsewhere. Grr…

  10. Pingback: Interesting posts, weekend of 8/8/10 « Feminists with Female Sexual Dysfunction

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