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Why Everyone Should Read This Week's Cosmo. No, Seriously.

Want to really get his attention? Help us fight overcriminalization!
Want to really get his attention? Help us fight overcriminalization!
Sarah Solon,
Communications Strategist,
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April 16, 2014

This isn’t a blog about the top ten kissing tips for spring. And it’s not a blog making fun of the magazine that usually delivers such tips. This is a blog applauding Cosmopolitan for taking a firm stance against criminalizing pregnant women. Well done.

You might think it would be hard to find someone who falls into the “pro-criminalizing pregnant women” camp. Sadly, you’d be wrong. A dangerous bill​ has wormed its way through the Tennessee legislature that would allow prosecutors to bring criminal assault charges against women who use drugs during pregnancy.

In all seriousness, it’s encouraging to see Cosmo publish a thorough take-down of this bill. It’s a sign that deep misgivings about the needless expansion of our criminal justice system are now so widely held that they’ve reached pop culture salience. For decades, this country has ratcheted up the number of crimes on the books and the length of time we lock people up, pushing the number of people under correctional control to about 7 million. Many of these people would be better served outside of the criminal justice system entirely.

That’s certainly true for pregnant women who use drugs. Just in case it needs to be said: I’m not in favor of women using drugs during pregnancy. I am, however, an ardent supporter of solving problems instead of making them worse.

In 2013, 921 babies in Tennessee were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a bundle of problems linked to addictive, illegal, or prescription drug use during pregnancy. We need to recognize that this is a health care crisis. Our goal should be making treatment as easily available as possible, not erecting criminal barriers between people and the care they need.

Criminalization will not lead to fewer babies born with NAS; instead, it will encourage pregnant women to lie to their doctors and shy away from prenatal care out of fear of ending up behind bars. NAS is treatable, which means it’s vital people get the medical care they need. Criminal penalties will only scare people away from seeking treatment.

What’s more, this bill misses the pragmatic mark. Study after study from around the country shows that stiffer criminalities do not lead to less drug use. Citing the ineffectiveness of criminalization, even the American College of Obstetricians Gynecologists has come out against any bill that would punish pregnant women for substance abuse.

Among its many problems, this bill would only criminalize certain types of drug users. By penalizing only “cocaine and heroin,” as one of the bill’s sponsors has said, this legislation ignores fetal injury from alcohol use, cigarettes, and prescription drugs. This narrow focus makes no sense, considering that 60 percent of mothers of babies born with NAS in 2013 had a prescription for the drugs they were taking. Some have suggested the law will be selectively enforced as well. Farah Diaz-Tello, staff attorney for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, issued this warning: “I can almost guarantee that this [law] will be used disproportionately against African-American women because, even though we know that fewer African-American women than white women use drugs during pregnancy, they are more likely to be blamed for the outcomes of their pregnancies.” Diaz-Tello’s point is underscored by a study finding that white women have higher rates of alcohol and cigarette use during pregnancy than Black women.

If we truly care about the problem of NAS, it would be much more productive to simply leave intact the law Tennessee passed last year, the Safe Harbor Act, which allows women who have used drugs during pregnancy to seek out healthcare and treatment without fear of having their parental rights terminated. With the increase in the reported number of babies born addicted to drugs in Tennessee, we do not have time to be distracted. There is a clear solution: eliminate any criminal penalties linked to seeking medical care.

I’d love to claim I said it here first. But the truth is I read it in Cosmo, just after an article on the perfect bikini belly.

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