Criminal Justice

Drug-abusing pregnant women may be prosecuted under endangerment law, Ala. Supreme Court says

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Drug-abusing pregnant women can be prosecuted under a law intended to protect children from methamphetamine labs, the Alabama Supreme Court has ruled.

The court ruled on Friday that the state law barring chemical endangerment of a child applies to those who have not yet been born, the Montgomery Advertiser reports. The 6-2 majority held that “the plain meaning of the word ‘child’ in the chemical endangerment statute includes unborn children.” Alabama Appellate Watch has a copy of the supreme court decision (PDF).

Justice Tom Parker wrote the majority opinion. In a section of his decision joined by four other justices, Parker refused to make a distinction based on viability “as inconsistent with the plain meaning of the word ‘child’ and with the laws of this state.” The opinion did not consider constitutional arguments, saying the court granted cert only on the statutory construction issue.

The court ruled in an appeal by two women, Hope Elisabeth Ankrom and Amanda Kimbrough. Ankrom’s son was born in 2009 with cocaine in his system. Kimbrough’s son died 19 minutes after his birth; an autopsy attributed his death to methamphetamine exposure. Both women pleaded guilty under plea agreements. Kimbrough received a 10-year sentence.

Courts in a majority of other states have refused to apply criminal statutes to pregnant women in similar circumstances, the court acknowledged. The court found those cases unpersuasive.

A dissenter, Chief Justice Charles Malone, said the majority’s construction of the statute could lead to practical problems. The law as interpreted by the majority could apply to a woman who has a glass of wine without knowing she is pregnant, he said. Malone also said the statute as constructed would provide an incentive for abortion by women fearing prosecution.

Personhood Alabama called the decision a “landmark ruling” in a press release, while Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver said in a press release that the decision is in line with rulings in other areas of the law. “In personal injury, criminal, and wills and estate law, the trend has been to recognize the unborn child as a human with legal protections, not merely a ‘potential’ human being,” he said.

Prior coverage: “Woman Sentenced to 10 Years for Taking Meth While Pregnant Attracts ‘National Army’ of Supporters”

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