A newly announced enforcement crackdown targeting pregnant women in a Montana county calls to mind the ongoing challenge women's advocates face in responding to measures that they say discourage women from seeking treatment that would benefit them and their unborn children.
The county attorney's office in Big Horn County (in southern Montana near the Wyoming border) last week announced that it would begin to issue restraining orders against pregnant women found to be using illegal drugs or alcohol, in what it says is a response to increasing demand for health services for newborns exposed in utero to opioids. The announcement drew a strong rebuke from National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), a group that has aggressively fought measures such as the 2014 Tennessee law subjecting women to arrest and prosecution if they use substances while pregnant and do harm to their child.
Referring to the Montana county attorney's office suggestion that healthcare providers or family members/friends should report substance-using pregnant women to state authorities, NAPW said in a Jan. 12 statement, “People who heed the prosecutor's call to report pregnant women and violate patient privacy and confidentiality may themselves be subject to legal action.”
The Billings Gazette reported last week that according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, there was more than a threefold increase in the number of newborns showing symptoms of drug withdrawal between 2008 and 2015. The data prompted County Attorney Jay Harris to say of his office's newly announced stance, “I regret that I have not pronounced this policy years ago.”
Harris has indicated that women who violate a restraining order will be subject to prosecution for civil contempt and possible incarceration “in order to incapacitate the drug or alcohol-addicted expecting mother.”
NAPW counters that there is no research evidence to support coercive policies against pregnant women, adding that such policies “in fact discourage women from seeking health care and could coerce women into having unwanted abortions.” Addiction treatment professionals add that a shortage of treatment slots often makes it difficult for women to access services in a timely manner.
The NAPW statement cautions women not to engage in any self-reporting to government agencies, “and further urges every medical and public health provider in Big Horn County to immediately oppose this dangerous, unethical, and counterproductive policy.”