Mothers who use drugs during pregnancy, and give birth to helpless babies addicted to opiates, are not high on the social ladder and are often viewed with disdain by those inexperienced with drug addiction. The knee-jerk reaction is to punish rather than treat.
It was estimated in 2016 that some 26,000 of the 5.4 million women in the U.S. addicted to opioid painkillers or heroin were pregnant when they abused drugs.
In a 2012 National Geographic article, Fran Smith wrote that “babies going through opioid withdrawal have a distinct way of crying: a short, anguished, high-pitched wail, repeated over and over.”
Drug Use During Pregnancy Criminalized
As of July 1, 2018, twenty-three states (including Texas) and the District of Columbia have passed laws that make drug use by women during pregnancy a form of child abuse.
In July of 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan sentenced 27-year-old Lacey Weld to a 151-month term, in part because she was used meth while pregnant during a methamphetamine manufacturing operation. The Court imposed a six-level enhancement for exposing her unborn child to a substantial risk of harm. Even though Weld’s baby was not addicted to meth when born, her case became a rallying cry for women’s rights groups and civil libertarians opposed to criminalizing pregnancy.
Last November a Mississippi woman was given a 15-year sentence for exposing her unborn child to opioids. The sentence was given after the woman plead guilty to prescription fraud and child abuse by exposing her unborn child to opiates.
The harm caused by drug abuse during pregnancy is direct, and long lasting. However, punishing women who are desperately addicted to drugs is counterproductive and misguided. Early intervention and treatment are much more productive methods of preventing invitro exposure to drugs.
We do not believe that the criminal justice system, and the lawmakers who shape its policies, should make addition to drugs, particularly the drugs de jure, in this case opiates, more serious than many intentionally violent criminal offenses. The issue of drug addiction is much too complicated to be dealt with through criminal sentencing.