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A Call To Stop Criminalizing Pregnant Women On Illegal Drugs

Brandi Williams had been up for two straight days smoking crack cocaine when she realized she was going into labor in 2014. She made it to the hospital and gave birth to a daughter, but tells NBC News, "I was ashamed that I was still getting high while pregnant. I was ashamed because I couldn't quit." Treatments for drug addiction during pregnancy are safe for the mother and the baby, doctors say. Methadone and buprenorphine can reduce cravings and help users carry a pregnancy full term, without long-lasting effects on the baby. A major deterrent to women's seeking help is the crippling fear that their babies will be taken away by state welfare authorities. Some states, based on their interpretation of a federal law, view substance use during pregnancy as child abuse so heinous that it deserves criminal prosecution.

A growing number of experts — including maternal/fetal specialists, federal health officials and people who treat addiction — are calling for changes to the laws. "We should remove criminalization of women who are pregnant and taking drugs," said Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Substance use disorder "does not diagnose anyone's ability to parent," said Dr. Hendrée Jones of the University of North Carolina’s Horizons Program, a drug treatment program. "I have a woman getting ready to deliver, and she is terrified that somehow they're going to find drugs in her system and Child Protective Services is going to be called and her baby's going to be snatched away," Jones said. A study published Wednesday in the Maternal and Child Health Journal that included 26 pregnant women in Massachusetts found that the decision whether to take anti-addiction medicines "was entirely wrapped up in what happened with respect to mandated reporting to Child Protective Services at the time of delivery," said Dr. Davida Schiff, the study author and an addiction medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.


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