Journalism in the Public Interest

Transcript: Are Drug Laws Punishing Innocent Mothers?

(Grant Blankenship for ProPublica)

In Alabama, taking a Valium while pregnant can land a young mother in jail — even if her baby is born healthy.

"They told me: 'He's good, he's clean. You can have him now, no worries,'" 37-year-old Casey Shehi recalled, explaining how a maternity nurse assuaged her fears after her drug screen tested positive for benzodiazepines. Shehi told the nurse she'd taken half a Valium several weeks before giving birth, and thought the matter was resolved. James was born healthy; the Valium didn't even register in his lab tests.

Nevertheless, Shehi became one of at least 479 new and expecting mothers prosecuted under Alabama's chemical endangerment law since 2006. And Shehi's experience is becoming more common as states adopt aggressive chemical endangerment–type laws. As ProPublica's Nina Martin reports:

In 2013‚ Lynn Paltrow, the NAPW's executive director, and Jeanne Flavin, a professor of sociology at Fordham University, published  an extensive study on arrests and "forced interventions" against pregnant women in the 30 years following Roe. It was an eye-opening analysis of how the relentless battles to restrict abortion have resulted in the increasingly onerous regulation of pregnancy itself. The report compiled 413 examples across the United States, mostly arrests of drug-using mothers, but other types of detentions and prosecutions as well — a figure that struck many people as shocking. The number of Alabama chemical-endangerment prosecutions in the ProPublica/ analysis — almost certainly an undercount — dwarfs anything in that report. As a new drug panic over opiates and "oxytots" spreads through the South and Midwest, and other states contemplate their own chemical endangerment-like statutes (Tennessee passed one last year; this past spring, eight legislatures introduced bills), the Alabama example holds lessons about the kinds of inequities and overreach that can result, said NAPW's director of legal advocacy, Sara Ainsworth. "Alabama isn't an aberration," she said. "It's a bellwether."

The Alabama case raises so many questions about the standards for testing and prosecuting pregnant women without their consent. What happens if the baby is healthy? When and how should medical providers report test results to law enforcement? And when should a mother face criminal charges?

Nina Martin (@byninamartin) spent six months investigating how these questions played out in Alabama, along with's Amy Yurkanin (@amykingsley4). They were online Wednesday, Sept. 30 along with Sara Ainsworth of National Advocates for Pregnant Women to discuss their analysis of Alabama cases and the broader civil rights issues raised in our investigation. A full transcript follows.

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