The North Carolina Legislature is considering SB 297, which, if passed, will criminalize prenatal use of narcotics.
A similar bill was passed in Tennessee in 2014, and has already led to multiple arrests.
There are numerous problems with bills that criminalize prenatal drug use. Just for starters, the science behind the legislation is fundamentally flawed. SB 297 will criminalize the use of narcotics, which are legally defined as opiates and cocaine. The effects of prenatal cocaine use have been routinely disputed. Researchers now know that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a birth defect or other sign of harm was caused by cocaine use or by another environmental or genetic factor (i.e., lack of adequate prenatal care, poor nutrition, use of other drugs, congenital disease). The “crack baby” epidemic of the 1980’s and 1990’s is now seen as a harmful and stigmatizing misrepresentation of the research. Similarly, research findings for the effects of opiate use have been inconsistent. The effects of opiates that have been documented usually disappear completely by the time a child reaches school-age.
The proposed bill in North Carolina states that mothers can only be charged with abuse if the child “is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug and the addiction or harm is a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant.” Women and babies can be tested for drugs, but prosecutors will be standing on very dubious science if they try to link a specific outcome to narcotic drug use.
The fact that alcohol and tobacco use, which have consistently been proven to cause significant harm, are not criminalized begs the question of who this law is really serving. Legislators claim to be protecting children, but the reality is that they are trying to pass a law that will disproportionately affect low-income and minority women, while ignoring the harm caused by other substances and not supporting women in their quest to become drug-free.
Supporters of the bill will point out that women will not be charged with abuse if they complete an addiction recovery program. However, stories of women being convicted in other states after seeking addiction treatment will certainly deter North Carolina women from seeking treatment themselves. Even if drug-addicted women seek treatment, addiction treatment centers often discriminate against pregnant women. Only nine states require treatment centers to prioritize pregnant women, and only four prohibit discrimination against pregnant women.
Instead of trying to systematically discriminate against certain classes and races of pregnant women, legislators should increase funding for drug treatment programs and require drug treatment programs to prioritize admitting pregnant women. Treating all pregnant women that are suffering from substance abuse is a much more productive avenue than throwing new mothers in jail.
Tiffany Frye manages a small but growing childcare and coworking cooperative and works as a managing editor for science publications. She lives in Durham, NC, with her husband and daughter.