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Soundings

Heather Mac Donald
What About the Children?
Summer 1995

Crying and shaking uncontrollably, many babies born addicted to crack refuse to take food; many die. To spare children such a fate, some states require addicted mothers-to-be to get treatment. (See "Yes, Drug Treatment Can Work") But in New York the mothers' "liberty interests" are paramount, under a recent ruling by state Supreme Court justice Kristin Booth Glen in the case known as Tanya P.

Homeless, mentally ill, and three months pregnant, Tanya P. was arrested on New Year's Day 1993 for trying to set fire to a shelter and for smoking crack. Police took her to the Bellevue Hospital psychiatric unit, where she voluntarily began in-house drug treatment and anti-psychotic medication. But a month before her baby was due, she demanded release. The hospital refused, under a city policy that allowed involuntary commitment for drug treatment during pregnancy. Represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Tanya sued, and persuaded Justice Glen to release her immediately.

Now—two years later—Glen has issued an opinion in the case, outlawing statewide the involuntary commitment of pregnant addicts for drug treatment. Glen found the evidence of "correlations between cocaine use during pregnancy and low birth weight, obstetrical complications, and even some long-term effects on infants born to cocaine-using mothers" insufficient to justify curtailing a mother's liberty.

Glen—who will soon leave the bench to become dean of City University Law School—either misunderstood the evidence or waved it aside, says Dr. Kathleen Brady, director of clinical services at the Medical University of South Carolina's Center for Drug and Alcohol Services. "There is a tremendous amount of hard evidence that crack has a horrible effect on the outcome of pregnancies." Smoking crack greatly increases the risk not only of premature birth but also of death-of both mother and child-during childbirth.

Donna Lieberman, Tanya's NYCLU attorney, told New York Newsday that the decision "affirms the principles of equality for women in our society when it comes to medical care. A woman does not lose her constitutional rights when she becomes pregnant." Is it really justice to sacrifice children to such an immoderate notion of adults' freedom?
 

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