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The debate rages: is drug use while pregnant child abuse?

If we look at portrayals of pregnant women on television, it is almost always women who are taking expensive prenatal vitamins, going to numerous doctors' visits, and attending birthing and parenting classes. This is not a reality for every Illinois woman, however. There are some women who, because of a heavy dependence on drugs, are unable to avoid illegal substances.

Unfortunately, at a time when these women need help, the Illinois state government has decided to label them child abusers. While it is not technically a crime to use drugs while pregnant, if a woman gives birth to a child and doctors detect drugs in the child's system, the mother could be charged with child abuse, which can have just as serious punishments as a criminal charge, including a loss of parental rights.

It is not just Illinois, however, that treats unborn fetuses as persons in need of protection. There are 17 other states in which drug use during pregnancy is considered child abuse, three states may also use it as a reason to commit a mother to drug treatment, and one state has even gone so far as to make it a crime. Whether it will ever reach that status in Illinois remains to be seen.

There is considerable debate about whether it is appropriate to treat unborn children as people. Many people, including at least one person who was born to a drug-addicted mother, argue that it is not. For one, the woman whose mother used drugs while pregnant argues, punishing the mother for being addicted to drugs is also a punishment for the child, especially if he or she is placed in foster care.

It will be interesting to see if more states start to treat drug use during pregnancy as a crime or as child abuse.

Source: The New York Times, “Do Personhood Laws Protect Or Harm?,” Anna Altman, July 23, 2014

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Darryl A. Goldberg
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