Criminalizing Motherhood: Louisiana, Addiction, and the Undoing of Women’s Civil Rights

As “pro-life” (or anti-choice) as our state is, you’d think our legislators would be doing all they could to support women during their pregnancies. Passing livable wage laws (or any minimum wage law at all), expanding Medicaid, promoting maternity leave policies, and increasing access to affordable childcare. These are all policies that support pregnant women and new mothers. They make it easier for a woman to have a healthy pregnancy and care for her child.

Instead, State Senator Gerald Long (R-Winnfield) has pre-filed a bill that criminalizes pregnant mothers who use any type of “illegal drug” during their pregnancies.

Taken at first glance, one might think this law is a good idea. Few people would be disagreeable to women not taking “illegal drugs” during their pregnancies. But, let’s walk through this bill in all its deeply troubling glory:

  • Criminalizing drugs doesn’t work. Legislating against behavior rarely has a meaningful deterrent effect, particularly in the area of drug use. Alcohol abuse by minors is a reality despite 21 being the legal drinking age. Plenty of folks smoke marijuana even though being caught twice in possession of it is a felony in Louisiana. There are significant numbers of people addicted to substances like heroine and methamphetamines. Criminalizing those drugs doesn’t mean folks won’t use them anymore. And criminalizing drug use during pregnancy will have a similarly limited effect. Expecting pregnancy to alter addiction and make it instantly easier to quit misunderstands the nature of addiction itself.
  • Drug use is a public health problem. Women who take drugs during their pregnancies need help and compassion. They need professional rehabilitation treatment. These are not malicious women, trying to hurt their babies. Drug addiction is not simple. It’s an incredibly complicated health problem that involves changes in brain chemistry.
  • Arresting pregnant women serves the interests of no one. The stress of being arrested and put in jail while pregnant is not something to take lightly. Is jail really the best place for a pregnant woman found to be using illicit drugs? With our state of the art OB-GYN facilities that our jails are known for? And all the comfort of sleeping on a cold slab of concrete or a cot? And we obviously have the best nutritional choices in our jails. Who does arresting pregnant women under the crime of battery really serve? What benefit to our state does such a policy accomplish? I would argue absolutely none at all, beyond making Senator Long feel like he has acted in some mysteriously righteous way. This legislation is vindictive and serves absolutely no public good.
  • Why does it serve no public good? Because drug use during pregnancy can’t be meaningfully linked to fetal outcomes. There’s zero science that supports this bill. Zip. Zilch. None. This notion that “crack babies” are being born left and right has been thoroughly debunked. The most significance indicator in child development and cognitive outcomes for babies exposed to drugs like cocaine and crack during pregnancy and babies who are not exposed is poverty. Which brings me back to the opening of this post. Remember all those meaningful policies that would help pull pregnant women and new mothers out of poverty?
  • Major medical associations do not support these pregnancy criminalization laws. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, National Women’s Health Network, and the National Perinatal Association are all in agreement that these laws aren’t good for pregnant women. You would think physicians would be the most interested parties in preventing illicit drug use in pregnant women. Turns out, they are. They are really, really interested in preventing drug use in pregnant women. So, why don’t they like these laws?
  • Pregnancy criminalization laws deter pregnant women from seeking healthcare. The leading experts on pregnancy, fetal health, and maternal health all have spoken against laws like Senator Long’s because they deter women from obtaining prenatal care, despite prenatal care significantly reducing the harmful effects of substance abuse during a pregnancy. When women are afraid they will be arrested if they test positive for an illicit drug during a routine prenatal screening, they just won’t go. And not receiving prenatal care harms both the pregnant woman and the fetus.
  • Pro-life groups don’t like these laws either. Why? Because one unintended consequence of criminalizing pregnancy is that is encourages abortion. Women with desired pregnancies who have drug addictions may decide to just terminate the pregnancy for fear of being arrested if they cannot stop using.

It’s time to get a grip, Senator Long. Look at the science, listen to the experts.


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