Why would Missouri treat pregnant women struggling with drug addiction like criminals?

Pregnant women who are abusing opioids face criminal penalties under a bill being debated by the Missouri legislature. File photo illustration.
Pregnant women who are abusing opioids face criminal penalties under a bill being debated by the Missouri legislature. File photo illustration.

If only male politicians could become pregnant.

Then maybe some of the ideas they propose that clearly punish mothers would seem less appealing.

The latest is legislation sponsored by Rep. Jered Taylor, a Republican from Nixa. He’s introduced a bill that would criminalize addiction in pregnant women. During a committee hearing this week, Taylor heard an earful of dissent. Taylor introduced the same measure last year, but it thankfully died in committee.

The measure would make it a crime to endanger the welfare of a child by knowingly ingesting, injecting, consuming or inhaling a narcotic drug or controlled substance without a prescription while the “person” is pregnant. That means women.

Taylor apparently believes the threat of jail will motivate women who struggle with a compulsive dependency to seek treatment.

Pro-life groups quickly recognized the potential for unintended consequences and raised concerns: Pregnant women might decide to have an abortion rather than face criminal charges for their addiction.

Campaign Life Missouri was right to sound the alarm, testifying before a committee.

Addiction is a disease. Untreated, it undercuts people’s ability to make good decisions, despite the inevitable adverse consequences. They need professional help from addiction specialists, not the punitive possibility of jail time.

That said, Taylor’s concern is valid. The national epidemic of opioid addiction is devastating. Babies are being born with medical complications because their mothers used drugs during pregnancy.

There’s a name for it. Opioid use disorder. And experts, including a committee of addiction and medical specialists in Kansas City, are working on bolstering available help as part of a plan to address addiction in the metropolitan area.

In fact, the group developing this Model Recovery Community have partnered with one of the nation’s top experts to address this very issue.

Hendrée E. Jones, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine, helped develop recently released standards, Clinical Guidance For Treating Pregnant And Parenting Women With Opioid Use Disorder And Their Infants, a publication of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The work criticizes states that have passed such legislation, calling the laws a “critical barrier” that will decrease the likelihood that women receive appropriate treatment.

“The goal of these efforts is to protect the fetus or infant from opioid exposure but these legal consequences may drive women away from available care, seeking care or continuing to engage in care thereby potentially leading to worse outcomes for both the fetus and mother.”

At the heart of this wrong-headed approach is the reflex to punish rather than to understand the problem. It’s similar to proposals that penalize the poor, equating people’s class level with being lazy rather than acknowledging the more likely possibility of being under-educated. Lawmakers should view this as a public health issue — not a criminal justice one.

Moreover, this bill in Missouri misunderstands the nature of addiction, leaning into the widely debunked theory that some people are simply making a choice to abuse drugs. The science around addiction says otherwise.

The opioid epidemic is damaging families, and yes, it is harming babies. Legislators should focus on funding recovery programs and abandon efforts to treat pregnant women struggling with addiction like criminals.