With the distressing uptick in babies born addicted to illicit drugs, the state of Missouri proposes a way to hold mothers’ responsible for their child’s complications. HB 1875 aims to make it a crime by way of “endangering the welfare of a child in the first degree if a person knowingly misuses a narcotic drug while pregnant” according to the bill. It was proposed last week at a hearing in Missouri held by the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-being of Young People at the House of Representatives. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Jered Taylor, (R).
Opponents of the bill argue the potential law could keep pregnant mothers from seeking pre-natal care, or push them into abortion clinics to avoid punishment.
“We’re going to turn a person who has an addiction into a criminal,” said state Rep. Barbara Washington, a Kansas City Democrat. She sat on the committee that debated the bill last Monday.
Testimony was given by the adoptive mother of a child born into addiction. Tammy Johnson spoke for her son, Lucas Johnson and his dismal entrance into the world. Lucas was born premature, weighing one pound and ten ounces and nearly born on the bathroom floor with methamphetamines were being cooked. He received no pre-natal care while in the womb.
Now at 3 years old, he weighs 22 pounds and lives his life with a series of medical issues that effect him everyday, including seizures, astigmatism and developmental delays.
“We go to the hospital two to three times a month for different medical issues that he has. And it’s all just because she chose drugs,” said Tammy Johnson.
Baby Lucas blew lawmakers a kiss during the testimony, the living example of just what neonatal abstinence syndrome is.
Louisiana resident and Lafayette County prosecuting attorney Kristen Ellis also testified in favor of the bill. She recalled an event where a woman gave birth to a baby who would have lifelong medical issues due to her consistent controlled substance abuse throughout her pregnancy. Law enforcement involved asked what they could do with an obvious case of neglect in that moment.
“There was nothing. At that point, there was nothing that we could do,” Ellis said. “There are no consequences in my role as prosecuting attorney, and that is extremely troublesome.”
Perry Barnes, the chief juvenile officer of the Christian County Juvenile Office, said the current system isn’t protecting newborns.
“There’s policies in place that allow these children to never be reported to the juvenile office, and they’re dying,” Barnes said. “They’re dying on my watch.”
Opponents are accusing those in favor of holding a heartless approach to the mother’s suffering from substance abuse disorder, punishing first before offering options that would address making it a public health issue, instead of a criminal justice one.
The state of Tennessee had a similar bill pass in 2014, and abortion rates were lowered after the law went into effect. But Representative Washington pointed out that the law was not renewed in 2016 because pregnant women were discouraged from seeking treatment.
Washington spoke for the women in her district, arguing “Most of my community is on Medicaid,” Washington said. “And the woman that we have like this, they have not gone to get treatment if they’re addicted because they’re afraid. I don’t think this does anything to help the problem.”
Which is also a valid point, as Sarah Topps, lobbyist for Missouri section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists referenced the care options in their state. “In addition to limited access to basic obstetric care,” Topp said, “there evidently are very few centers in Missouri who are willing to treat pregnant women with substance abuse disorders.”
But the bill also proposes an alternative option for mothers, the opportunity to participate in Missouri’s Drug Court program that would provide them with treatment and eventually have the experience “wiped off of their record”
Since treatment courts began in Missouri, 846 drug-free babies have been born to treatment court participants, according to a fact sheet from the Drug Courts Coordinating Commission.
Representative Taylor spoke against those who accused the punishment approach, defending the bill by saying “It’s not that I want to punish, I believe that there needs to be some enforcement mechanism in order to encourage these women to get the treatment necessary.”
“These women need to get help,” he said. “We’re not only talking about their life, but we’re also talking about the life of their unborn child and making sure that they have babies that are born healthy and drug-free.”
Washington felt the criminal aspect was a step too far by saying: “Are you aware that once they have the child and if the child tests positive the child is immediately taken away from them? Is that not punishment enough?”
Some say it isn’t.