MONTGOMERY — Medical professionals would have two hours to call law enforcement if they suspect a child is being exposed to drugs, according to a bill in the Statehouse.
Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, is carrying the legislation at the request of local law enforcement.
At a public hearing on Wednesday, Butler said that women who give birth to babies exposed to illegal drugs are often hard to track down when drug tests come back positive and they’ve already left the hospital.
“Crackheads don’t have permanent addresses,” Butler said to members of the House Health Committee. The committee did not vote on the bill on Wednesday.
House Bill 408 says that “if a doctor or other health care professional suspects, through patient admission or initial testing or screening, that a child is chemically endangered by being unlawfully exposed to a controlled substance in violation of (state law), the doctor or other health care professional shall orally notify law enforcement within two hours of the suspicion. The doctor or other health care professional shall notify law enforcement in writing upon subsequent confirmation of chemical endangerment based on medical test results.”
Butler said he’d be willing to change the two-hour requirement to up to 24 hours.
In 2006, Alabama lawmakers made it a felony to knowingly, recklessly or intentionally expose a child to a controlled substance, chemical substance or drug paraphernalia.
In 2013, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the state’s chemical endangerment law applies to fetuses.
At the public hearing, Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin spoke in favor the bill he asked Butler to carry.
He said that in about the last year or so, 48 women have been arrested for chemical endangerment after giving birth.
“It’s not about putting the mother in jail, it’s about saving the child,” Entrekin said. He said the county works with a facility in Birmingham to get drug treatment for the women.
“Putting them in jail, it’s not the goal, but sometimes they have to go there,” he said.
Two Democrats on the committee questioned whether locking women up is a real solution or if the bill would rely on state support systems for women that currently aren’t being funded.
Those who spoke against the bill said that it could lead to racial profiling and weaken the relationship between women and healthcare providers. They pointed out the health care workers are already required to report any suspected abuse to the Department of Human Services.
Entrekin said that most of the women prosecuted under the law are repeat drug offenders. He also said that most of them are white.
Huntsville doctor Pippa Abston didn’t attend the meeting, but sent a letter detailing her opposition to the bill.
“We pediatricians know, and research confirms, that prenatal care is critical for a baby’s start in life, and that good delivery care is important for both mothers and their newborns,” Abston wrote. “With its prosecution of pregnant women for 'chemical endangerment of a child,' Alabama has already scared people away from prenatal care, childbirth care and drug treatment.”
There are nine legislative days left in this session. Butler said he’s hopeful that he can get his bill passed, but said if not he’d bring it back next year.
“I consider this a pro-life bill, pro-life for the child and pro-life for the mother,” Butler said.