There was a detailed – and heartbreaking – piece in the New York Times Magazine this weekend about the effects of “chemical endangerment” laws on pregnant women and their families. The piece profiled several Alabama women facing jail time after their babies were born with drugs in their systems. They are being charged with chemical endangerment of a child and can face significant prison time.
The idea of chemical endangerment actually stems from an attempt by Alabama authorities to add yet another layer of prosecutable offense to people running meth labs, which are evidently rampant in parts of the state. The law highlights the risks meth labs pose to children in the home and enables the state to protect young children living in an environment with meth making supplies.
At some point, interpretation was expanded to include fetuses as children and the womb as the environment. Thus, pregnant women who expose their unborn babies to illegal drugs are breaking the law.
On its face, there is some value to efforts to deterring women from doing drugs during pregnancy. There is no doubt that the damage drugs can do to a developing fetus is significant. No one stands up and cheers when a meth addict continues to use while pregnant. But is this law the answer to the problem?
In my commie-hippie-pinko-liberal way I look at a story like this and start asking large, difficult questions. Why is drug trafficking in Alabama such a large problem that it requires additional laws to prosecute it? Why is there so much poverty that people turn to taking, producing, and selling drugs? What could be done before the cycle of drug use begins to head off the problem before it starts? Would improving education, social supports, and the job market be a better use of resources?
And how does this link in with the growing fetal-personhood movement? Do laws that protect the unborn ultimately detract from the rights of the born? In this case, the mother doesn’t truly have the right to engage in the behavior in question – i.e. illegal drugs – but what about other scenarios? Would a mother who works in agriculture be forced to quit her job if farm chemicals were seen as chemical endangerment while she was pregnant? What about a server in a bar that allows smoking? What about a lab technician or hospital worker who deals with hazardous substances?
Heck, what about the expectant mom who colors her hair, drinks too much coffee, or has some champagne at a wedding? At what point does the idea of “acceptable risk” in pregnancy get taken out of the hands of a woman and her physician and put in the hands of the state?
Like I say, I don’t think women should have the right to pour illegal drugs into their bloodstreams during pregnancy but I’m also not in favor of legislating the rules of pregnancy. I see a slippery slope here and it makes me nervous.
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