November 23, 2015 — A health task force subcommittee appointed by Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) has proposed amendments to the state's child chemical endangerment statute, AL.com reports.
The full task force is scheduled to vote on the proposed amendments within the next two months, and will present its recommendations to Bentley by Feb. 2, 2016 (Yurkanin, AL.com, 11/18).
The Alabama chemical endangerment statute was passed in 2006 as a response to methamphetamine use in the state. The law was intended to punish parents who put children at risk by producing methamphetamine in their homes. However, prosecutors and courts started applying the law to pregnant women shortly after the law's enactment. Experts across the country criticized this enforcement, noting that criminalizing pregnant women who use drugs discourages them from seeking care.
In 2013 and 2014, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the chemical endangerment law could be used to prosecute pregnant women for drug use. Women charged under the Alabama law can face one to 10 years in jail if they deliver a healthy infant, 10 to 20 years in jail if the infant shows signs of exposure and 10 to 99 years if the infant dies.
According to a ProPublica investigation, at least 479 pregnant women or recently postpartum women have been arrested in the state since 2006. The women charged under the Alabama law mostly were white, although a report from National Advocates for Pregnant Women found that across the country, such laws disproportionately affect women of color. Women charged under the Alabama law also tended to be low-income, a trend that the NAPW report found to be consistent across the U.S. (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/25).
Details of Proposals
The subcommittee, which is part of the Governor's Health Care Improvement Task Force, has proposed three amendments to the law.
The first amendment would limit the law to its original purview, which is to penalize adults who expose minors to harmful chemicals and drug fumes, rather than using it to prosecute pregnant women who use substances. The second amendment would mandate that prosecutors offer substance abuse treatment programs as an alternative to prosecution. The final amendment would exempt women who use legally prescribed drugs.
The subcommittee also recommended boosting funding for drug treatment and forming a health literacy partnership (AL.com, 11/18).