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Big Horn County Attorney’s Office Announces Immediate Crackdown of Pregnant, Expecting Mothers Consuming Alcohol or Dangerous Drugs, Particularly Methamphetamine and Opioids

That was the title of the Jan. 11 press release from Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris, who is “asking the public to report any known instances of pregnant females using drugs or alcohol to the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office by using the County CrimeStoppers Hotline, by calling the Child Abuse Hotline of the State Department of Public Health and Human Services Division of Family Services or by submitting notarized affidavits with the affiant’s contact information to the Big Horn County Attorney’s Office.”

Maternal drug use — alcohol and other substances — can cause serious short-term and long-term health problems for babies exposed in utero. Harris is right about the risk of drug abuse during pregnancy, but he is absolutely wrong about his "solution".

Harris announced last week that he will begin seeking court restraining orders against pregnant women who are reported to be using alcohol and other drugs, not including prescription medicines, and that he would jail women who disobey such an order.

“Every major medical group tasked with addressing the problems associated with drug and alcohol use during pregnancy — including the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Nurses Association and the March of Dimes, opposes criminal or civil charges against pregnant women,” Martha Stahl, president of Planned Parenthood of Montana, said Wednesday in a joint news release with the ACLU Montana. “Experts recognize that drug dependency is a medical condition and public health issue requiring treatment, not punishment.”

“Harris’ proposed policy is unconstitutional,” said Caitlin Borgmann, ACLU of Montana executive director

The legal grounds Harris based his policy on are "quite dubious," a spokesman for Attorney General Tim Fox told The Gazette Wednesday.

In 2014, a Ravalli County attorney tried prosecuting pregnant drug abusers and charged a pregnant woman with criminal child endangerment. The case was dismissed by a district judge.

Harris told a Gazette reporter that his legal strategy is different because Ravalli County brought a criminal charge, and he will seek civil restraining orders. There isn’t really much difference: Harris would seek a contempt of court finding to jail women who kept using drugs despite a civil order. Either way, the pregnant woman winds up in jail.

There are many things wrong with that scenario. For starters, the threat of prosecution and jail doesn’t cause drug addicts to stop using. If the threat of jail was an effective deterrent for addicts, America and Montana wouldn’t have the drug problems we now have.

The threat of jail may already be having harmful effects by discouraging pregnant Big Horn County women from seeking prenatal medical care. Harris put Big Horn County residents on notice that if he learns that a woman who drank alcohol or abused other drugs is pregnant, she will be prosecuted.

Instead of prosecuting women, Harris ought to support strategies that will reduce the risk of addicts continuing to use during pregnancy.

  • Help generate support for addiction treatment programs in Montana because they are short on professional staff and have long waiting lists for treatment. Pregnant women usually can’t just walk in and start treatment.
  • Help open and reopen supervised, drug-free shelters that provide a safe place for pregnant addicts, their newborns and older children. These houses are closing across Montana because of state budget cuts.
  • Encourage pregnant women to get early prenatal care, so medical providers can help them have a healthier pregnancy and the best chance of having a drug-free baby.

If an addict is jailed, she will still be addicted when released and at high risk for continued substance abuse. Few stay drug free without effective professional treatment and ongoing support through organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Harris’ prosecution plan depends on Big Horn County’s justice of the peace or district judge to issue orders and contempt findings. Those jurists should prevent the persecution of pregnant women by ruling against any such unconstitutional petitions filed by Harris.