GREENVILLE — In Ohio, a pregnant woman can be charged with crimes associated with her; not her unborn child.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Among pregnant women aged 15 to 44, 5.4 percent were current illicit drug users based on data averaged across 2012 and 2013. In addition, among pregnant women aged 15 to 44 in 2012-2013, an annual average of 9.4 percent reported current alcohol use, 2.3 percent reported binge drinking and 0.4 percent reported heavy drinking.
While some may feel these women are subject to punitive measures, others have strongly argued in opposition, claiming that punishment results in a lack of prenatal care. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for one, has been in the forefront in raising public awareness that punishment of pregnant women for conduct alleged to harm the fetus is both unconstitutional and counterproductive. According to the ACLU, about 30 states in all have attempted prosecutions of women for conduct during their pregnancies.
“Because of determined opposition by the ACLU and others, these efforts have failed nearly everywhere,” the ACLU said. “But studies indicate that the prosecutions did have the unfortunate effect of scaring some women away from prenatal care. As the American Public Health Association has warned, ‘Flight from the health care system has a dramatic and detrimental impact on the health of women and their children.’ Because studies have shown that prenatal care substantially improves birth outcomes even for pregnant women who continue to use drugs during their pregnancies, it is extremely important that we put a stop to state actions that discourage pregnant drug users from seeking medical care.”
Ohio House Rep. Steve Huffman (80th District) said he is always for some type of treatment.
“We need to do more treatment rather than being punitive,” Rep. Huffman said. “At the time, the punishment may be the treatment. I am also the physician at the Darke County Jail. When people have some type of drug addiction and are pregnant, I have seen local judges sentence them to 180 days in jail, when most people would be released. I can’t speak for them, but I believe that their thoughts may be it is the most protective thing to be done for the child. I believe the judges sometimes incarcerate, knowing at least the baby will be drug-free until it is born.”
Another advocate of opposing punitive measures on pregnant women that abuse drugs is the March of Dimes. The following is a statement from the March of Dimes, known by many as the leading non-profit organization for pregnancy and baby health.
“The March of Dimes strongly supports universal availability of comprehensive services for substance-abusing pregnant women, including prenatal care, drug treatment, family-based treatment, and social support services. The March of Dimes believes that targeting substance-abusing pregnant women for criminal prosecution or forced treatment is inappropriate and will drive women away from treatment. For these reasons, the March of Dimes opposes policies or actions that make pregnant women criminally liable under either drug-related or child welfare statutes solely based on exposure to drugs during pregnancy and the potential harm to the unborn child. The Foundation encourages advancement of scientific and clinical knowledge on maternal substance abuse and replication of models for effective treatment.”
Among other complications for those babies delivered, Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), is a group of health conditions that a baby can have if the mother uses addictive drugs during pregnancy. According to Lori Geesaman Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB) Educator for Wayne HealthCare, the hospital’s biggest focus is not only treating the infants that have been exposed to opioids and other drugs during pregnancy, but providing compassion to the moms and the families involved. In the past two years, Geesaman said the hospital has seen a big increase in babies that show symptoms for NAS, due to the increase in opiate use. However, the numbers are not a clear story of the increase, as many pregnant moms were not being screened for addictions in the past, making the increase difficult to accurately measure.
“This is not a Wayne Healthcare change, but a change throughout the region,” Geesaman said. “Higher drug screening frequency is a result of the rapid increase in drug/opioid use in the area, not just at Wayne HealthCare. We have had to send multiple babies to Dayton Children’s Hospital because of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome,” Geesaman said. “An infant with a score of 12 or higher may be sent to Dayton, or a lower score with multiple complications.”
EDS NOTE: This story is part of an ongoing series titled “Fatal Addiction” that will address the drug problem and effects on residents and resources in Darke County.
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