Women in criminal justice

Image: American Civil Liberties Union

On Tuesday, a bill was proposed in the Senate that would make it a criminal offense for a woman in North Carolina to use drugs while pregnant. The bill, sponsored by Senator Brent Jackson and Senator Louis Pate, would permit a woman to be charged with assault if she uses an illegal narcotic while pregnant and her child is born addicted to or harmed by the drug.

The problems with this bill are numerous.

First, it is obvious that pregnant women who suffer from a drug dependency are less likely to seek prenatal care when they are threatened with prosecution. Studies have shown that prenatal care substantially improves birth outcomes even for pregnant women who continue to use drugs during their pregnancies.

Second, drug dependency is a recognized medical condition that must be treated with proper medical care. Under the threat of prosecution, pregnant women will be less likely to be forthcoming with their doctors about their drug use which will prevent them from getting the help they need and which could negatively affect both the mother and child.

Third, there is evidence that criminalizing drug use during pregnancy would disproportionately affect minority and low income women. Poor women and women of color are more likely to live in areas where they don’t have access to treatment facilities or proper medical help and therefore more likely to be unable to get the help they need during pregnancy.

The only defense to prosecution provided by the bill is for a woman to enroll in an addiction recovery program prior to the birth of the child, remain in the program after delivery and successfully complete the program. In reality, this is often not a viable option for a pregnant woman.  Many treatment programs won’t accept pregnant women or aren’t set-up to adequately meet their needs. Also, particularly in rural areas, there often aren’t treatment centers close by. If legislature really wants to help pregnant woman overcome drug addictions, they should introduce a bill that would provide easy access to helpful and effective drug treatment centers.

Currently, it appears that Tennessee is the only state to have such a law on the books. (A bill was introduced in Oklahoma this month). A week after the Tennessee law went into effect, a woman was arrested for smoking meth. She is now in county jail and could be incarcerated for up to year. Criminalizing drug use during pregnancy has done nothing to help her overcome her addiction or protect the health of her baby. Instead, the state has just added one more person to criminal justice system.

If the ultimate goal is promote healthy pregnancies and healthy babies, this bill is not the answer.


Paul Stam 2There was time not that long ago in the North Carolina General Assembly in which anti-choice conservatives were at least willing to be minimally consistent with the their claims of being “pro-life.”

Take State Rep. Paul Stam, for instance.

Stam has been in the General Assembly for a long time. Prior to his current series of half a dozen terms, the Wake County Republican also served during the 1989-90 legislative session. It was during that initial term that Stam first made his name as a crusader for right-wing social causes and, specifically, a passionate opposition to abortion.

Now, flash forward to 2013 and see that things aren’t much different. Stam is still leading the anti-choice charge (and the anti-gay rights charge and the pro-death penalty charge).  Along with many of his conservative colleagues, Stam is doing everything he can to make abortion more inaccessible, prevent LGBT equality and revive the death penalty.

Here’s one important difference, however, Read More


We wrote a brief, which you can read here, about a Senate budget provision that will throw thousands of pregnant women off of Medicaid. The bill moves Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women from 185 percent of federal poverty level (about $21,000 per year for a single person) to 133 percent of federal poverty level (or about $15,000 per year for a single person).

The Senate also creates a small voucher program to help some of these women purchase private insurance, but the way the provision is written means that very few women, if any, will qualify for full coverage during their entire pregnancy.

Besides violating good sense, it also turns out that this provision violates federal regulation.

The federal rule regarding Medicaid eligibility says that states can’t cut the minimum income for pregnant women to qualify below what the state had authorized by July 1, 1989. This date was chosen because many states expanded Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women in 1988 and 1989.

In its 1989 budget (which became effective on July 1, 1989) the North Carolina legislature authorized Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women to increase to 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Although the increase to 150 percent of federal poverty level did not take effect until 1990, the higher rate was authorized by July 1, 1989.

That means that the North Carolina legislature, even if it is determined to kick pregnant women out of Medicaid, can’t set eligibility below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. This is just one more reason to delay or cancel this ill conceived plan until we understand its impact.


The following is an abstract of a study that appeared in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology more than 15 years ago. Would that it or some similar study was required reading for all American politicans.

OBJECTIVE: We attempted to determine the national rape-related pregnancy rate and provide descriptive characteristics of pregnancies that result from rape. STUDY DESIGN: A national probability sample of 4008 adult American women took part in a 3-year longitudinal survey that assessed the prevalence and incidence of rape and related physical and mental health outcomes. RESULTS: The national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age (aged 12 to 45);

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