Alabama authorities have vowed to make it a high priority to arrest women on charges of chemical endangerment when their unborn children are exposed to dangerous drugs during pregnancy.
Our Birmingham drug defense lawyers know that this law, while clearly discriminatory as it pertains only to females, was nonetheless upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court earlier this year in a case that was deemed a landmark victory for anti-choice advocates.
The case resulted in the decision was Ankrom v. State of Alabama, though a second woman’s petition was also included in the appeal to the state’s high court.
In question was the state’s chemical endangerment statute and the definition of the word “child,” as it pertained to Alabama Code 26-15-3.2.
The facts of the case regarding the first woman were that in January of 2009, the defendant gave birth to a son who soon after his birth tested positive for cocaine. The mother had tested positive for cocaine prior to the birth. The mother reportedly admitted to a social worker that she had used marijuana, but denied the use of cocaine. Medical records from the doctor revealed she had tested positive for both substances on more than one occasion during pregnancy. Those records were later used against her in the criminal case, and she was arrested about two weeks after her child was born on a single charge of chemical endangerment, a Class C felony punishable by between 2 and 20 years in prison under Alabama law.
She was convicted and given a suspended three-year sentence, with one year of probation.
The facts of the other woman’s case were that she had tested positive for methamphetamine and gave birth to a child at just 25 weeks via emergency C-section. He died about a half hour after birth, with an autopsy later revealing he died from acute methamphetamine intoxication. She was later convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The women both appealed convictions from lower courts on the basis that the legislature had intended that the word “child,” as it is written in the statute, did not extend to fetuses. The women argued that bills that specifically addressed this issue and would have made substance abuse during pregnancy a crime failed in both the state House and Senate in recent years.
However, the court ruled that, “The plain meaning of that statutory language is to include within its protection unborn children.”
As such, the convictions were upheld.
In the wake of that decision, in January, a number of law enforcement agencies have announced pledges to step up their efforts and cooperation with other social service agencies to address drug use among pregnant women.
The majority of cases, officials say, involve prescription pill use, but also methamphetamine, heroin, crack and methadone.
As one county law enforcement official was recently quoted as saying, “If a baby is born with a controlled substance dependency, the mother is going to jail.”
A handful of women throughout the state have recently been arrested on this charge as a result.
We worry that the fact that prosecutors are using medical records obtained from the women’s prenatal visits as evidence in the criminal cases could result in fewer women with drug addictions seeking necessary prenatal care. It’s especially troubling because these are the women and children who may need that kind of care the most, and yet, prosecutors are effectively discouraging it.