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Prosecution Of Pregnant Drug Abusers

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Prosecution of Pregnant Drug Abusers

Drug abuse is an epidemic in our country. While substance abuse is commonly thought to be a plague of the poor, the fact is that it is widespread and has no demographic preference. It can affect anyone regardless of age, sex, race and economic status. A group of illicit drug abusers that may be largely overlooked are pregnant women. This group of people not only harms themselves, but also their unborn children. A woman must be held accountable for the health of her unborn baby in terms of drug and alcohol abuse. Prosecuting women who use drugs while pregnant is a way to make these women more aware of their actions as well as becoming a way of motivating them to seek treatment.

Increasing numbers of women are abusing drugs during pregnancy and thus endangering the well being and lives of their children as well as themselves. The spreading abuse of phencyclidine (PCP), cocaine, and cocaine's potent form "crack", added to the more well known addictive narcotics such as heroin, has intensified concerns about the implications of maternal drug use for unborn children (

More than 5 percent of the 4 million women who gave birth in the United States in 1992 used illegal drugs while they were pregnant, according to the first nationally representative survey of drug use among pregnant women (

The survey gathered self-report data from a national sample of 2,613 women who delivered babies in 52 urban and rural hospitals during 1992. Based on these data, an estimated 221,000 women who gave birth in 1992 used illicit drugs while they were pregnant. Marijuana and cocaine were the most frequently used illicit drugs--2.9 percent, or 119,000 women, used marijuana and another 1.1 percent, or 45,000 women, used

cocaine at some time during their pregnancy ( The chart below depicts results from this survey, divided into ethnic groups.


There are a number of ways that mothers who use drugs during pregnancy put themselves and their unborn child at risk. These women may suffer more complications during pregnancy, such as pre-eclampsia, premature rupture of membranes, breech presentation, cord prolapse, and stillbirth. The babies are more likely to suffer complications before and after delivery. These babies are more susceptible to pre-term delivery, stunted fetal growth, and increased risk of deformities, while after birth they may suffer withdrawal like symptoms such as central nervous system hyperactivity, tremors, seizures, disturbed feeding, and disturbed sleep. Drugs can cause problems

through out pregnancy. The critical period of embryonic development, when the major organ systems develop, starts about 17 days after conception and is complete by 60 to 70 days. Exposure to certain drugs during this period (17 to 70 days) can cause major birth defects. However, some drugs can interfere with functional development of organ systems and the central nervous system in the second and third trimesters and produce serious consequences. During the last 12 weeks of pregnancy, drug use poses the greatest risk for stunting fetal growth and causing pre-term birth (

Since the late 1980's, as a means of dealing with this problem, policymakers have debated the question of how society should deal with the problem of women's substance abuse during pregnancy. No state specifically criminalizes drug use during pregnancy, however, prosecutors have attempted to rely on a host of criminal laws already on the books to attack prenatal substance abuse, and only the South Carolina Supreme Court has upheld such a conviction. Thirteen states consider substance abuse during pregnancy as child abuse under civil child welfare statutes, and three consider it grounds for civil commitment. Nine states require health care professionals to report suspected prenatal drug abuse and four states require them to test for prenatal drug exposure if they suspect abuse. Nineteen states have either created or funded drug treatment programs specifically targeted to pregnant women, and seven provide pregnant women with priority access to state funded drug treatment programs (

Determining whether pregnant addicts should be held criminally responsible for their conduct is a difficult task. While drug addiction is a disease, it is treatable and can be effectively managed. For some women, simply learning that they



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