Mandy, a server living in the Boston area, became pregnant with her first child two weeks after enrolling in buprenorphine treatment, which consists of a medication that mitigates the cravings and withdrawal that result from opioid addiction. It was her fourth serious attempt at sobriety after 18 years of drug use that evolved from occasional lines of cocaine into an addiction to heroin, and eventually fentanyl.
Mandy had tried methadone, another medication similar to buprenorphine, three times unsuccessfully, but was determined to maintain sobriety this time. When she learned that she was pregnant, using again became a “hard no.” She enrolled in a comprehensive, high-risk pregnancy program geared toward people in recovery from substance use disorders.
There, she learned that due to a Massachusetts state statute requiring hospitals to report any prenatal substance use, she would be subject to a child services case once she had given birth. But she was assured that as long as she remained compliant with treatment and continued to prioritize her health and pregnancy, the investigation would be brief and relatively unintrusive.
That’s not how it went, though. Instead, she was charged with neglect and a placed on a statewide child maltreatment registry that would limit her job options and even her ability to attend field trips with her child.
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Mandy was relatively lucky because she had the knowledge and resources to successfully appeal this decision, but many mothers who face similar circumstances are stuck living with the consequences of child welfare involvement simply for seeking treatment.
Media outlets have labeled the uptick in overdose deaths since 2015 the “opioid crisis,” and a rash of sensationalized stories — cops overdosing from contact with crime scenes, babies born “addicted” to drugs, drug dealers compared with serial killers — are fueling a public perception of drug users as a macabre and dangerous population.
The result? A crackdown on parents — especially mothers — who use drugs, with a hard target centered on those with a past or present addiction to opioids. State laws vary, but at least 23 states and the District of Columbia articulate that substance use during pregnancy is child abuse, and virtually every state in the U.S. will open an investigation (at the very least) into a person who tests positive for substances during or shortly after pregnancy.
According to research compiled by the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy, the number of infants entering the foster care system rose by nearly 10,000 between 2011 and 2017, and at least half of those infant removals were due to parental substance use, often during pregnancy.
Not only can these types of punitive measures make pregnant people who use substances wary about seeking medical care, but applying personhood rights to the unborn is a dangerous precedent that criminalizes people for events outside of their control; for example, earlier this year in Alabama, Marshae Jones faced criminal charges for having a miscarriage after she was shot.
Women’s rights advocates continue to fight laws that pursue the rights of fetuses before those of the people who carry them, and have seen some wins — for example, the charges against Jones were ultimately dropped, and last year the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed a ruling against a mother who use opioids and marijuana while pregnant, stating that fetuses were not covered in their child maltreatment laws — but it remains an uphill battle around the nation.
At the same time, abortion rights are under fire. Fueled by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, many conservative states are implementing laws that make abortions virtually impossible to access legally and safely. For example, Alabama’s governor recently signed into law a bill that holds doctors criminally liable, with a penalty of up to 99 years in prison, for performing abortions that are not medically necessary and also bans abortions at all points of pregnancy, even in cases of rape and incest. Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio also passed recent legislation banning abortions after six to eight weeks respectively, which is before many people even realize they are pregnant. Because habitual drug use can interrupt or alter menstruation, it can be even more difficult for those experiencing addiction to catch a pregnancy early enough to terminate it in one these states.
The concurrent rise of anti-abortion laws and punitive prenatal substance-use laws leaves people who become pregnant while having a substance use disorder — whether active or in remission — trapped in a dangerous situation that is often overlooked due to the stigma attached to substance use during pregnancy.
Any time we take a swing at so-called ‘bad mothers,’ it falls to the children.
– Richard Wexler
“Among people with substance use disorders, there’s no one more stigmatized than pregnant women,” said Stephen Patrick, a neonatologist and an associate professor of pediatrics and health policy at Vanderbilt University. He added that this pervasive stigma leads some people with substance use disorders to fear and distrust the medical community, even to the point of avoiding treatment.
Unfortunately, that distrust is often warranted. “Pediatricians often don’t know what they are required to do, and often states have a hard time interpreting what the federal government wants them to do,” Patrick explained. At the federal level, child welfare guidelines are vague and general, leaving states with broad discretion when it comes to defining child maltreatment and the subsequent responses. This means that when state or county authorities are misinformed about the reality of substance use and parenthood, that bad information can easily become codified into the system. Worse, it allows those policymakers determined to give the unborn personhood rights a means for policing the behaviors of pregnant people. “The end result is a system that in many cases over intervenes in some families that may be in recovery, and in other cases may not intervene when it needs to,” Patrick said.
Mandy’s story is just one example of the real-world impact of this stigma. My own life is yet another: I gave birth in 2014 while prescribed methadone. My daughter was hospitalized for neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is a common side-effect of appropriate methadone usage. She had no other health problems and, five years later, remains a healthy and developmentally normal child.
Nonetheless, a child welfare case was opened against me in the state of Florida. At the time, the case was deemed unsubstantiated — but four years later, a call by my mother-in-law to the Florida state child abuse hotline triggered another investigation. This time, the investigator made no attempt to speak with me before making her decision. She simply looked at my previous records of having been prescribed methadone while pregnant and filed to have my two daughters removed from my care. More than a year later, I am still fighting to get them back.
I love my daughters, and I have no regrets when it comes to birthing them — but I remember learning I was pregnant with my youngest less than a year after her elder sister was born. I was on a low dose of buprenorphine after having tapered from the methadone I began taking during my previous pregnancy. I had just finished grad school, and before entering treatment had been using heroin intravenously for nearly five years. My husband and I, both in recovery, were broke and sharing a mobile home with his parents in South Florida.
I became pregnant after being unable to access a timely refill on my birth control. Abortions in Florida are not covered by Medicaid. I didn’t feel ready for another child, but I had no way to finance an abortion. I don’t know that I would have decided to get one if I could have; that’s something I will never know, because it was a choice I simply did not have. Now, the same state that gave me no other options is withholding my children from me for having sought treatment for a medical condition.
No woman should feel compelled to terminate a pregnancy because she has a substance use disorder—but when jurisdictions withhold that choice, they force people who use drugs to suffer harsh punishments simply for becoming pregnant. Sometimes, that even includes jail time.
“In 2006, the Alabama legislature passed the chemical endangerment of a child law, and even though the legislation said this has nothing to do with pregnancy and drug use — it has to do with punishing adults who take children to dangerous places like meth labs — it was used as a basis for arresting pregnant women using any controlled substance, even if prescribed,” explained Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. This has led to the arrest or child welfare prosecution of thousands of women since it was implemented; in 2015, ProPublica identified 1,800 affected mothers. The law is still being used.
Both anti-choice activists and those who push for criminal or civil prosecution of pregnant people who use substances claim to be protecting children. But the reality is one of oppression and harm. “It is an anti-woman policy and an anti-child policy,” says Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform, of child welfare policies aimed toward substance use. “Any time we take a swing at so-called ‘bad mothers,’ it falls to the children.”
You see this in cases like mine; my judge doesn’t see my daughters crying every time I leave our once weekly supervised visit, nor does she have to answer their questions about why they can’t come home, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. You see this also in cases like that of Keri, a mother who I interviewed for a story I wrote for Filter Mag, who bought buprenorphine on the street and self-detoxed before giving birth to avoid child welfare intervention. A 2017 paper by Amnesty International reports that doctors across the nation are seeing substance-addicted people avoid timely prenatal care out of fear of prosecution, harming the very infants these laws claim to protect.
Across the country, harm reduction efforts are gaining traction, and the government is slowly increasing access to evidence-based medical care. But even while the general perceptions and treatment of people with addictions are advancing, pregnant people who use drugs continue to be stigmatized and punished.
Said Paltrow, “There’s no question that prosecutors and others have used the stigma and horrific medical info about the impact of controlled substances on pregnancy to establish in the law separate rights for fetuses, and anti-abortion principles that treat pregnant women like criminals.”