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Court says Alabama chemical endangerment law applies to unborn

April 23, 2014
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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The Alabama Supreme Court this month affirmed that the state's chemical endangerment statute applies to unborn children, upholding the conviction of a woman whose newborn tested positive for cocaine. The court decision sparked outrage from groups such as National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the Drug Policy Alliance, while earning praise from right-to-life groups.

This month's state Supreme Court decision in the case of Sara Hicks was in step with a ruling in a prior case that stated in part that under Alabama law, pregnant women may be arrested for using a controlled substance during their pregnancy. National Advocates for Pregnant Women founder and executive director Lynn Paltrow said in a statement, “It appears that the court accepted the Hicks case for the purpose of more fully articulating a view that pregnant women are proper subjects of Alabama's criminal justice system and a growing state and national system of mass incarceration.”

Groups such as National Advocates for Pregnant Women fear that exposing pregnant women with substance use problems to arrest and prosecution will dissuade them from pursuing the treatment services that in the long run can yield the best outcomes for them and their children.

Conversely, the group Liberty Counsel, which works to advance religious freedom and right-to-life causes, sees this month's decision as revealing flaws in the U.S. Supreme Court's past decisions on abortion. “The [state] opinion goes on to state that 'the State has a legitimate interest in protecting the life of children from the earliest stages of their development and has done so by enacting the chemical endangerment statute,” Liberty Counsel said in a news release.

The Alabama court decision comes at a time when treatment advocates are closely watching whether the governor of Tennessee will sign legislation that would subject women to criminal assault charges if they use drugs while pregnant.