A woman in St George has been charged with felony child endangerment for using methamphetamine while pregnant. The baby was delivered by emergency C-section last week due to medical problems. According to charges filed Monday, the 24-year-old mother admitted to medical staff and police that she is addicted to meth and used it while pregnant. She was booked in a Washington County facility on 10,000 dollars bail. But state officials and health experts say the law was never intended to prosecute pregnant women.
In 2001, the Utah legislature passed a law making it a felony to knowingly expose a child to a controlled substance or drug paraphernalia. Elizabeth Sollis with the Utah Department of Human Services says the law came in response to heavy manufacturing of meth in the state at that time.
“People were exposed to the methamphetamine, either because they lived near it, they were living in the same household where it was being manufactured, or else children would have it within their reach, so it was a safety issue,” Sollis says.
The law does not say anything about babies in utero, but has been used before in Utah to prosecute pregnant mothers, though not often. Sollis says the preference is to make sure that mothers get treatment, not punishment.
“Our concern with charging people who are pregnant with any charges specific to substance abuse, is that they won’t go in and get the proper medical treatment,” Sollis says.
Lynn Martinez has been an information specialist for a pregnancy risk hotline in Utah for thirty years. She says that when pregnant women are prosecuted for drug use, she encounters a lot of fear.
“They’ll call in and say I haven’t told anybody, I’m afraid to tell anybody, I’m afraid to go in for treatment. So we spend a lot of time trying to talk people down and talk people into treatment, and talk people into getting the care that they need, because now they’re scared,” Martinez says. “They’re talking about not getting care, and that makes us very nervous because that actually increases the risk to the baby.”
Martinez says pregnant women with questions about the effects of substances on their babies or treatment options can call the anonymous MotherToBaby hotline at 800-822-BABY.