Responding to the Arrests of Pregnant Women in Alabama

In 2008, Amanda K. was six months pregnant and went into early labor with a prolapsed umbilical cord. She went to a local hospital for care where she underwent emergency cesarean surgery to facilitate delivery of her son. Unfortunately, her son, delivered prematurely, died shortly after delivery. Ms. K and her family were devastated by the loss. But, rather than providing the support and compassionate care she and her family needed, the hospital drug tested her. The positive result was used as a basis for reporting her to the police and having her arrested for the crime of “chemical endangerment” of a child. Ms. K was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She is currently out on bail while she challenges the charge and raises her two older children and a beautiful nine-month old.

Ms. K is one of at least 35 pregnant women in Alabama who have been charged with the crime of “chemical endangerment.” Most of these women have given birth to healthy children but were arrested when they carried their pregnancies to term in spite of a drug problem. Some, like Ms. K, have suffered losses that, as a matter of science, are not linked to the use of illegal drugs.

In 2006, the Alabama Legislature passed a “chemical endangerment” law that was designed to provide special criminal penalties for “responsible persons” who allow their children in or around methamphetamine labs. Some Alabama district attorneys believe that a pregnant woman is no different than a drug lab and are arguing that the word “child” in Alabama’s chemical endangerment law (and all of Alabama’s criminal laws) should be judicially re-written to include embryos and fetuses.

The director of the Alabama Women’s Resource Network, Catherine Roden-Jones, recently published a commentary about these cases, in which she explains:

Women, upon becoming pregnant, do not suddenly have greater access to health care, better housing, safer environments or enhanced capacity to overcome behavioral health problems such as addiction. Any woman in Alabama looking to overcome substance use can attest to the difficulty in finding a treatment center they can afford, that will provide child care, and that is local to their place of residence and job. How can we prosecute those whom we have only just begun to help by way of services and outreach?

Responding to widespread concerns about issues involving pregnant women, children, and drug use, the Alabama Women’s Resource Network, Alabama Voices of Recovery, and National Advocates for Pregnant Women are sponsoring a continuing education program called “Drugs, Pregnancy, and Parenting: What the Experts in Medicine, Social Work and the Law Have to Say.” National and local experts including scientific researcher and pediatrician Dr. Deborah Frank, obstetrician Dr. Curtis Lowery, social work researcher Dr. Brenda Smith of University of Alabama (UAB), and Tajuan McCarty, a mother in recovery and director of the treatment community called Neighborhood House will be presenting.

The program will be held this Friday, October 15, 2010 in Birmingham, Alabama. More information about “Drugs, Pregnancy, and Parenting: What the Experts in Medicine, Social Work and Law Have to Say” available here.

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  • prochoicekatie

    Wish I could attend!

    I heard you speak here in Colorado in 2008; we’re in an eerily similar place right now…

    But your work provided us then with real life examples of the dangers of personhood amendments and continues to highlight what happens when we treat women like places where crimes occur instead of persons themselves.

    Keep up the good work!

  • alabamamama

    I wish I’d seen this earlier; I would have liked to attend.

    I had a baby at the end of August of this year. A beautiful little boy who never took a breath; he died from placental failure two days before I delivered him.

    When I was at the hospital, just hours after delivering my son (who I did not know was dead when I went into labor, so lots of shock) a nurse came in and explained that because he died, they were going to have to drug test me, and they wanted me to pee in a cup. I had just given birth, naturally, in the car to be specific, in the parking lot at the hospital. I was sore!

    I looked at the nurse like she was stupid, and I told her that I couldn’t get out of bed and pee right then, and pointed out that she already had several vials of my blood, test that.

    She then informed me that I would have to sign consent forms for them to be able to drug test me. I have no idea where the law stands in regard to drug testing pregnant women or women who have just given birth without their consent, but at UAB hospital in Birmingham, AL, I had to sign consent forms before they could run the tests.

    The nurse never came back with the forms, and I was screaming to go home. I don’t think they ever ran the tests; there was nothing in the medical records I obtained later mentioning it.

    It would be something for Alabama women to keep in mind, or to check into. I am in no way advocating drug use in pregnant women or anyone else for that matter. And, had they brought me the forms, I would have signed them.

    For the record, I am “low-income” and had no health insurance at the time. So, I wasn’t treated better because of health insurance or money.

    No woman should serve 10 years in prison for her child dying from a cause that can in no way be linked to drug use. Prolapsed cord is not something that can be blamed on any drugs.

    I hope that y’all will continue to follow and update on this story; this is the first I have read about it, I haven’t seen any coverage in the local news or papers.

  • forced-birth-rape

    AlabamaMama, I am so sorry, that is a horrible experience, and then to demean a grieving woman who just lost her baby. Very sorry for you and any other women this has happened to. Much love.

  • doulaelizabeth

    This is so sad that women have to go through this.  I’m sorry for your loss.,