Court of Appeals Ruling Renews Debate Over Drug Use During Pregnancy

A recent ruling by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals rekindles the debate surrounding public policy considerations regarding drug use and addiction during pregnancy. The dispute pits those favoring criminal punishment to address the issue and others who believe criminalization only serves to drive pregnant women battling addiction away from the help they need.

It is, at the very least, a complicated challenge for government and society.

Court reinstates child neglect charges

Oklahoma prosecutors filed charges of child neglect and conspiracy to commit child neglect against the father and mother of a child who tested positive for methamphetamine at birth. The charges accused the mother of using drugs during her pregnancy and knowing that doing so could harm her unborn child. Charges against the father were based upon evidence that he purchased the drugs and shared them with the child's mother during her pregnancy.

Subsequent to litigation, a district court judge dismissed the charges. The judge ruled that the definition of a "child" under the child neglect statute did not include a fetus. The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, disagreed in a unanimous ruling. The court reversed the dismissal, reinstated the charges, and the case was remanded back to the district court for further proceedings.

The appellate court relied, in part, on its reasoning from a similar decision issued in 2020. The previous opinion dealt with another child neglect case involving drug use by a woman during pregnancy. The appellate court also relied upon what it described as a "fundamental rule of statutory construction," which meant following the legislature’s intention by sticking to the language lawmakers used in drafting the statute in question.

The 2020 ruling in State v. Green included an analysis of the word "child" in the child neglect statute and other laws in Oklahoma. The Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that excluding a viable fetus from the protections afforded under the child neglect law would be contrary to the plain and ordinary meaning of the language used in the legislation.

The court noted in the Green decision that other laws in Oklahoma make it a criminal offense to cause harm to an unborn child. It would therefore be inconsistent, according to the court, to prosecute others for harming an unborn child while interpreting the law as shielding the child's mother from prosecution.

The argument in favor of prosecution

The most recent decision from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals falls in line with its recent history of affirming the right of the state to bring child neglect charges against a woman whose addiction to drugs caused harm to her unborn child. At least 23 states and the District of Columbia treat such conduct by a woman during pregnancy as a violation of child welfare laws.

At the heart of the argument in favor of enforcing child abuse and neglect laws is the need to protect an unborn child from harmful substances ingested by a pregnant woman. As the Oklahoma court noted in its most recent decision, the child's mother admitted to police that she lied about being pregnant in order to continue purchasing drugs.

Argument against prosecution

Those opposed to filing charges against someone whose drug addiction harms their unborn child argues that it drives women away from the care and treatment they need. According to groups advocating for a different approach to the problem, women confronted with the threat of child neglect charges are less likely to obtain the prenatal care they require during pregnancy or seek help with their substance abuse issues.

Oklahoma has taken steps toward enhancing the availability of medical care and treatment programs for pregnant women. Women who are pregnant must be given priority access to treatment programs and cannot be discriminated against when applying for state-funded programs. It may not be a solution, but it is hopefully at least a step towards finding one.

Speak with a lawyer for more information

If you are struggling with substance abuse and have pending criminal charges, you need sound legal advice and skilled representation. Contact an Oklahoma City criminal defense attorney to schedule a consultation. Fighting substance abuse on your own is difficult enough; don’t try to fight your criminal charges alone as well.

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