ProPublica offers a state-by-state look at pregnancy and drug laws

Susan Heavey

About Susan Heavey

Susan Heavey, (@susanheavey) a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on social determinants of health and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on resources and tip sheets at determinants@healthjournalism.org.

Photo by mahalie stackpole via Flickr.

Photo by mahalie stackpole via Flickr.

There have been a lot of gripping tales of late highlighting the impact of the nation’s soaring heroin epidemic, especially on children and infants.

They’re all important – if tough – reads, but what really caught my eye recently was a separate but related resource package circulated by ProPublica, which details state laws regarding women whose newborn babies test positive for certain drugs. While authorities may be increasingly focused on the issue, the project looks not only at the wide variance of rules across state and even county lines, but how laws already on the books can have unintended consequences and disproportionately affect poor women.

Produced by the nonprofit news organization’s Leticia Miranda, Vince Dixon and Cecilia Reyes, the map compares state laws related to substance abuse by mothers, drug testing requirements, and several other scenarios. It includes a state-by-state chart with more detailed information on what courts have said on various drug-related issues and pregnancy.

In some cases, while there is no specific law on certain aspects of the issues (such as whether health care workers must report drug abuse) some courts have interpreted child endangerment laws in ways that have led to charging women with child abuse in these cases.

The data, published in late September, ran with a well-reported story by ProPublic’s Nina Martin and AL.com’s Amy Yurkanin. Their piece, “How Some Alabama Hospitals Quietly Drug Test New Mothers  – Without Their Consent,” exposed wide discrepancies between facilities in how they set criteria for testing mothers for controlled substances. Martin also looked at the issue in a separate piece, “Take a Valium, Lose Your Kid, Go to Jail,” which profiles several mothers who were caught in the crosshairs of complicated and often unclear policies. In addition to the “How States Handle Drug Use During Pregnancy” resource, these stories are well worth a read.

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