Substance Abuse During Pregnancy: State Laws and Policies as of October 1, 2017

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Since the late 1980s, policymakers have debated the question of how society should deal with the problem of women’s substance abuse during pregnancy. In 2014, Tennessee became the only state to specifically criminalize drug use during pregnancy. However, prosecutors have attempted to rely on a host of criminal laws already on the books to attack prenatal substance abuse. The Supreme Courts in Alabama and South have upheld convictions ruling that a woman’s substance abuse in pregnancy constitutes criminal child abuse. Meanwhile, several states have expanded their civil child-welfare requirements to include prenatal substance abuse, so that prenatal drug exposure can provide grounds for terminating parental rights because of child abuse or neglect. Further, some states, under the rubric of protecting the fetus, authorize civil commitment (such as forced admission to an inpatient treatment program) of pregnant women who use drugs; these policies sometimes also apply to alcohol use or other behaviors. A number of states require health care professionals to report or test for prenatal drug exposure, which can be used as evidence in child-welfare proceedings. And in order to receive federal child abuse prevention funds, states must require health care providers to notify child protective services when the provider cares for an infant affected by illegal substance abuse. Finally, a number of states have placed a priority on making drug treatment more readily available to pregnant women, which is bolstered by federal funds that require pregnant women receive priority access to programs.

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  • Policy