Drug-Addicted Women Need Medical Care, Not Jail
I want to spend some more time looking at research/writings on this topic in general, but at first blush I’m more than a little appalled by this story, in which a 7-month-pregnant Tennessee woman was taken to jail after seeking medical care for chest pains because she had cocaine in her system.
I think we can all agree that it’s better if pregnant women don’t use drugs that could potentially harm the fetus (although you might want to do a little reading about the myth of the crack baby and the racist/classist undertones that fueled that particular bit of hysteria), and we know that illegal drug use is, well, illegal, even if the particular laws are unjust or insensible. Let’s just start from those two bits of assumed shared knowledge, to avoid the “But it’s illegal!” comments that don’t really address the heart of the situation. We’ll get to that later.
To assume that hauling a pregnant woman to jail for drug use is the best option, you need to assume that:
-Treatment for drug addiction isn’t a better solution (both immediately and in the long term) than jail, either for the individual or for society.
-Jail provides some kind of incentive to cease drug use, and/or drugs are not available in prison.
-Jail/prison provides adequate healthcare that does not endanger the woman or fetus beyond what is experienced in her community.
-Policing pregnant women who are attempting to seek medical care won’t discourage future women from seeking care and further endangering women and fetuses.
That’s an awful lot of assumptions.
Obviously, there are some folks arguing that jail was appropriate because the rights of the fetus at some point trump the rights of the woman. Tennessee Right to Life’ president said, “If she used cocaine, she put her baby in jeopardy. It is child abuse. It certainly is.” I’d like to know where this would stop – if you ride in a car, go to work, go home to an abusive spouse, leave an abusive spouse, smoke a legal cigarette, drink a legal beer, live in a polluted neighborhood, and so on, you may “put your baby in jeopardy.” All of those items may result in the exposure of the fetus to potentially harmful actions or substances. If the “protect the baby at all costs” argument is to prevail and suggest that pregnant women willingly being exposed or exposing oneself to potentially harmful acts or substances constitutes “child abuse,” logically it must prevail not only for illegal potentially harmful exposures. The emphasis here is on “potentially,” because not every exposure of any of these substances/actions will result in adverse outcomes in the fetus.
However, if we put aside the question of the woman’s rights and decide we want to protect the fetus/child at all costs, is jail the right place for the pregnant woman, who carries the fetus? Medical care in jail/prison is notoriously bad, and completely inadequate for pregnant women, who may have complications and need immediately available specialized care. Likewise, this woman “faces one to two years of probation or jail” – does it make sense that it’s better to throw this woman away by sending her to jail, putting her kid in the system, rather than simply providing her the adequate medical care she needs to address her drug use issues? Is that best for the child?
The article on this story provides a pretty good snippet about concerns about discouraging care:
In addition to deterring women from seeking treatment, Mark J. Bliton, a Vanderbilt University associate professor of medical ethics, said arresting pregnant women doesn’t solve the problem. He said studies have shown that drug treatment is more effective than jail in preventing future drug use.
“This is a misguided way to help the most vulnerable pregnant women and fetuses,” Bliton said. “The right way to handle this is to provide prenatal support and treatment.”
Bliton said he has grave concerns that Jones’ privacy rights may have been violated.
“In general, health-care information shouldn’t be shared with people who are not involved in providing health care,” he said.
Finally, back to the argument about “but cocaine is illegal!” The arresting deputy has stated that she never would have arrested the woman if she hadn’t been pregnant. The deputy attorney general has said that the woman might be charged with “reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon,” the weapon being cocaine. We are so not talking about the do drugs=go to jail issue here, it’s not even funny.
I am by no means the first person to talk about what a misguided approach this is. Please see the website of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, especially their statement on pregnancy and drug use.
Recent related post: Pregnant Drug Users in Alabama Getting Jail Time Instead of Help
[Hat tip to Katie Allison Granju at Knoxville Talks]