Drugs

A Montana 'Handmaid's Tale': Local Prosecutor Calls for 'Immediate Crackdown' on Pregnant Drug and Alcohol Users

A prosecutor tells the public to rat out pregnant women who are using drugs or alcohol.

Photo Credit: By Pressmaster / Shutterstock.com

A Montana prosecutor called this week for an "immediate crackdown" on women who use drugs or alcohol while pregnant, urging friends, family members, health care providers, and even strangers to turn in women they suspect to authorities. The prosecutor also warned drug- or alcohol-using pregnant women to "immediately self-report" to state health authorities to avoid criminal prosecution.

Even though there is zero scientific evidence supporting policies of coercion and punishment directed at pregnant women, some jurisdictions, mainly in the South, have taken to prosecuting women who give birth to children with drugs in their system. That's not good enough for Big Horn County Attorney Gerald Harris, who has concocted a toxic brew of right-wing, anti-choice, so-called fetal rights policies, and war on drugs ideology, along with a nice dollop of real-world racial disparity, to call for prosecuting pregnant women—and to go after them if they seek abortions to avoid prosecution.

In a Thursday press release, County Attorney Harris announced the crackdown, saying he will seek protection orders restraining pregnant women from any non-medically prescribed use of illicit drugs or alcohol, and those who violate the orders will be jailed to "incapacitate" them.  

"It is simply not satisfactory to our community that the protection of innocent, unborn children victimized in this manner and subject to a potential lifetime of disability and hardship relies exclusively on social workers removing the child from the custody of the mother at birth," Harris said. "This approach is not timely and has not proven to be a sufficient deterrent to this dangerous, unacceptable behavior and will no longer be the state’s policy in Big Horn County."

Big Horn County, home to the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Native American reservations, is 60% Native American and 33% white.  

Harris called on both the reservations and other prosecutors in Montana to join him in his crusade, which National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) described as a "reckless call to hunt down pregnant women." The advocacy group said it was "shocked by this attack on the health, liberty, and basic human rights of women in Big Horn County."

Harris' statement "irresponsibly promotes medical and scientific misinformation, promotes an environment of fear and reflects a shocking disregard for the rights and well-being of women and families," NAPW charged.

NAPW warned that Harris has no legal authority to carry out such a policy, saying enforcement would violate state and federal law. It also had a heads-up for potential busy-bodies: "People who heed the prosecutor's call to report pregnant women and violate patient privacy and confidentiality may themselves be subject to legal action," the group advised.

As NAPW noted, policies of coercion and punishment directed at pregnant women are actually counterproductive. Such policies discourage women from seeking prenatal health care and may even drive some to seek abortions to avoid arrest. This is where Harris' anti-choice politics and view of women as essentially little more than incubators rears its head.

"In the event an expecting mother chooses to abort an unborn child instead of refraining from drug or alcohol use and litigation extends beyond our local courts, we trust Attorney General Fox will make the right decision on behalf of all Montanans and continue this fight to the extent necessary to ensure justice is afforded to the most vulnerable of our society," he warned.

The NAPW, for its part, cautions women against "self reporting" to government agencies that could incarcerate them and is urging "every medical and public health provider in Big Horn County to immediately oppose this dangerous, unethical, and counterproductive policy." The group also encourages everyone who supports the health, dignity, and human rights of pregnant women to contact Harris "to let him know you oppose this outrageous action." 

Harris thoughtfully provided his office phone number on his press release: (406) 665-9721. 

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Phillip Smith has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute