Treatment, prevention — not more punishment

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: February 8 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 11:08 am in

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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Each year in Iowa, hundreds of babies are born with illegal drugs in their systems — having been exposed to the dangerous substances before birth.

It’s a serious problem with potential lifelong consequences. Reducing or eliminating preterm drug exposure is a worthy goal.

But we disagree with a proposal to charge mothers of such newborns with felony child endangerment.

Supporters of House Study Bill 49, now under consideration by the House Public Safety Committee, say pregnant women would think twice about using drugs if they faced criminal penalties for doing so.

The bill would make women whose newborns test positive for illegal drugs guilty of a Class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $7,500 fine.

But the state’s child protective services already becomes involved when babies are born and test positive for drugs. The babies’ mothers are subject to child abuse investigations and stand to lose their parental rights.

That’s an appropriate way to handle this problem — and, ideally, helping mothers kick their habits and, whenever possible, learning to safely care for their children and reuniting with them.

Adding a criminal offense won’t help the child or the mother. If anything, it could further put children at risk.

The threat of criminal arrest could discourage pregnant drug users from seeking prenatal care or help with substance abuse issues.

Adding a felony charge to a mother’s record would make it more difficult for women to find housing and employment so as to provide safe and stable environments for their children if reunification is possible.

If lawmakers want to do more, they should look at ways we might provide more and better substance abuse treatment for drug-abusing pregnant women, even before their babies are born. We can do more to protect Iowa’s children by focusing our efforts on prevention, not criminal punishment.

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