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Journal Issue: Drug-Exposed Infants Volume 1 Number 1 Spring 1991

Perspective of a Reproductive Rights Attorney
Lynn Paltrow


For some women in America, pregnancy is a crime. Women with addiction problems may be subject to a new array of punitive interventions by the government simply because they become pregnant. Prosecutors, acting like lawmakers, are prosecuting pregnant women under criminal laws never intended to apply to them. Similarly, child welfare advocates are promoting unfounded interpretations of civil child abuse and neglect laws to permit the removal of hundreds of children from their mothers, not because of evidence that the mothers will not properly care for their children, but rather because a single drug test indicates that the women used drugs once during pregnancy.

At the heart of these punitive approaches is the willingness to view pregnancy as a hostile relationship between two separate parties: the "innocent" fetus and the "bad" woman who does not care if she hurts the fetus. The fetus becomes the focus of attention, while the problems the pregnant woman faces in getting help are ignored or neglected, as if somehow they had no effect on the fetus. If states are genuinely interested in promoting healthy children, they will stop ignoring women or treating them only as potential child abusers. They will address the needs of pregnant women, as well as fathers-to-be, rather than rely on counterproductive measures, such as criminal prosecutions, mandatory reporting, and automatic suspension of parental rights.