12/27/15 Lynn Paltrow

This week: an interview with Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Century of Lies
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Lynn Paltrow
National Advocates for Pregnant Women
Download: Audio icon COL122715.mp3



DECEMBER 27, 2015


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization. Legalization. The end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

NGAIO BEALUM: Give it up! For not only a fantastic photographer but a wonderful human being, and he just got engaged to get married: Doug McVay!

DOUG MCVAY: Hello! And welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

LYNN PALTROW: I am Lynn Paltrow, and I am the founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

DOUG MCVAY: Lynn, I first became familiar with your work about 15, thirteen, fifteen years ago. I remember the case, Crystal Ferguson out of South Carolina. I am -- I am so naive. I really thought that after that case, that people would understand, finally, that we were doing things wrong, and that things would get better. And, like I say, I'm quite naive. So, I want to find out -- I want you to tell my listeners about National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and I wonder if you could start with Crystal Ferguson.

LYNN PALTROW: Sure. Crystal Ferguson is a woman from South Carolina who went to the hospital when she was pregnant. She went to Medical University of South Carolina, which is a -- the patient base at that university is 70 percent African American, and she didn't know that at the time there was a white nurse who thought she was seeing a problem of cocaine use among her predominantly African American patient base, and this nurse, Shirley Brown, had probably been to a lecture that either was given by Dr. Ira Chasnoff or based on his work, and he had been creating this panic about babies prenatally exposed to cocaine.

DOUG MCVAY: Crack babies, you mean.

LYNN PALTROW: They were called crack babies, but -- he, based on a study of 23 of them, he created a panic, and an industry, basically, of alarmist claims that these were children who were uniquely harmed in ways different from any other prenatal exposure. And the media picked it up almost immediately because the drug use was associated particularly with black mothers. And ever since slavery, when white people had to convince themselves that it was okeh to steal, kidnap babies away from their black mothers, we have had a rhetoric, a narrative, of black mothers who aren't good at loving and caring for their own children. And so, this drug use was associated with black moms, and people were willing to instantly, without any scientific basis, believe that the children would be uniquely and severely damaged.

Crystal Ferguson is a lovely woman with two older children. She was pregnant. She went to the hospital to give birth. She gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby, because as it turns out, none of the criminalized drugs, including cocaine, cause unique harms or a predicable set of harms, and that's why the appellation "crack baby" doesn't -- "crack baby" makes no sense. There's no -- it would be like saying a woman who ate an excessive amount of broccoli had a broccoli baby. So, we know that the -- not taking criminalized drugs, taking lots of substances during pregnancy, may not be a great idea, may be a bad idea, but the risks of harm are not greater than those of nicotine babies, babies exposed prenatally to nicotine. And the harms are never, don't even compare to fetal alcohol syndrome, which occurs when there's a huge amount of alcohol use, and often a genetic precondition, and also probably malnutrition by the mom.

But, let me get back to the Crystal Ferguson story. This white nurse thought she was seeing a particular problem of drug use among the African American patient base, and she, rather than talking to the women, saying, well why are you using cocaine? How is it helping you? What is it doing for you? Do you think it's helping with something that might -- something else might be better? And without waiting for the research about whether there really were unique risks of harm, she heard that women in the upstate of South Carolina were being arrested, went to the hospital lawyer, and said, why can't we have these women arrested? And the hospital lawyer didn't say, we're a hospital, we provide care, we provide confidential care and by the way, our own drug treatment program in the psychiatric division won't even accept pregnant women.

And instead of saying any of those things, the hospital lawyer said, what a great idea. Called a meeting with the hospital medical staff, the local police, and the prosecutor's office, and together they came up with a policy of secretly searching -- in the guise of medical testing, secretly searching their African American patient -- pregnant patient base for evidence of cocaine use. And if it was positive, turning that information over to the police, and working with the police to have the women taken out of the hospital in chains and shackles. And Crystal Ferguson was the named plaintiff in a lawsuit that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where we won a decision 6-3 from the Supreme Court, saying that secretly searching hospital patients, including pregnant women, for evidence of crimes without a warrant, without a consent to a search, not to a medical test, but to a search for criminal justice purposes, violated their Fourth Amendment Constitutional rights against illegal searches and seizures.

It meant that the actual doctors were -- could be liable, that they could be sued themselves. And we were -- nobody thought we could ever win such a case. Most of the plaintiffs were African American, low income women who had used drugs while they were pregnant, and we got the Supreme Court to indirectly recognize their full humanity, their full Constitutional personhood.

Unfortunately, it didn't really stop the -- no single Supreme Court decision, I mean, Brown v Board of Education was an extraordinary decision that there was no doubt about its importance, its statement against segregation, its statement on behalf of the humanity of African American people in the United States of America, and the schools still haven't been desegregated or equally funded. So, I guess, as you started out, I think we all hoped that a Supreme Court decision will bring about finality, and changes, and when it touches on issues like racism and sexism, and fear, that change does not come about because of a decision, or new law, it comes about over the course of time as a result of cultural change, and incredible persistent work at the core issues about, do we value -- do we recognize that everyone has human rights, regardless of their race, regardless of what they put into their bodies, regardless of how -- their gender or their gender identity.

DOUG MCVAY: The example of Brown v Board that you used is perfectly correct, I mean, and it's why we keep doing the work that we do. It's, yes, you got the decision, you got the judgment, now try to collect, like they say. Yeah, you got the decision, now try to get the states and others to actually follow it up.

LYNN PALTROW: Well, that's -- Deuteronomy, in Deuteronomy it says, "Justice, justice, justice, thou shalt pursue." It doesn't say thou shalt achieve. So we keep fighting.

DOUG MCVAY: You have had some more successes, I reported on some decision a few months back that came out very strongly.

LYNN PALTROW: We've had quite a few successes, and it's hard to keep in my head and my heart the fact that when people can access lawyers who are zealous and have the ability to really fight for them, they can win. And that's why actually there's a difference between reproductive rights and reproductive justice. If you can afford a lawyer, or you have the resources to find a lawyer who might be able to represent you pro bono, for free, you might actually be able to exercise or at least protect and defend your rights.

But, if you can't afford a lawyer, you don't actually have rights or access to healthcare, and that's one of the reasons that women of color leaders came up with the concept of reproductive justice. That it's not just a fight for reproductive health, it's not just a fight for reproductive rights, but justice that enables everyone, because they are protected in their humanity, in their civil rights and human rights, so that they can have the same health and rights. It's not just something that people of wealth and privilege can afford. And that -- as Joanne Csete at an international harm reduction conference said, it really would be wise to move from drug policy reform to drug policy justice, so that we ensure that everyone is not punished or discriminated against based on what they put into their bodies, their drug use, and it isn't something that is applied differently because of race, or class, or access to the defense and support that people need.

DOUG MCVAY: You are one of the most articulate people in this movement, it is such a pleasure to have you as a guest, oh my gosh. I've been looking forward to this for quite a while. What do you have -- what's on your radar? Where should we be looking, what should we be paying attention to in the, especially over the next several months.

LYNN PALTROW: Well, there are many things, and I -- the three cases, we've won three cases this year in state supreme courts. One of them was a case in New Jersey, in which women who, pregnant women who had opioid dependency problems, a woman got herself into methadone treatment, which is exactly what the state of New Jersey recommends, the federal government recommends, and the World Health Organization recommends.

But, as a result of a series of judicial decisions in New Jersey that started back in the middle of the so-called "crack baby" crisis, that court decided that the state's civil child welfare system, the system that takes children away from people who can't parent, could be applied to the context of pregnancy, that a drug using woman, upon giving birth -- that giving birth itself was an act, giving birth to a baby who tested positive for a drug, perfectly healthy baby for whom she risked her life and underwent pregnancy, experienced pregnancy and childbirth and perhaps underwent caesarian surgey to delivery, that it's child abuse to give birth to that child, based on nothing more than evidence of drug use.

And we've been fighting that back, we got a victory saying a positive drug test alone is not evidence of having harmed a child, but since when do we think of any newborn, who even has a health problem, much less not a health problem, as a harmed child. They're sick babies, sick babies are born all the time, and generally not from drugs. Pregnant women who use opioids or receive opioid treatment can have newborns that go through withdrawal sequence called neonatal abstinence syndrome. The great news is that it's completely treatable, it's completely transitory, there are no long-term effects, and more importantly, if you know what you're doing, then what you do is you keep the baby and the mom together, you let the baby have skin-to-skin contact, you let the mom breastfeed, and those all reduce the likelihood of the symptoms. And the symptoms are crying and not feeling well and things like that.

Well, what they typically do, because they haven't paid attention and they're so -- medical students have about three hours of addiction training in their entire medical school career -- is that they take those babies away and put them in the neonatal intensive care unit, the most expensive place, and as Dr. Ron Abrams says, you know, if you take a baby and put it in an abnormal environment, it's going to act abnormally. In any event, this mom got -- or a pregnant woman who was going to be mom, wanted to be a mom, got herself into methadone treatment. Her newborn, according to the hospital, showed symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome. They put the baby in the NICU, kept it there so long I have real doubts about whether they were not doing medical malpractice, and the woman was accused, reported to child welfare and accused of abusing and neglecting her child, even though she had been in medically approved methadone treatment. And we did, we won a decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court saying that methadone treatment per se is not -- a pregnant woman obtaining methadone treatment is not per se child abuse.

Unfortunately, they keep the door open, and so we have to go back because the court said, well, but we really don't want to let these moms off the hook, so maybe, if she didn't get into treatment quickly enough, you can treat her -- who did everything she could to have a healthy baby -- as somebody the state can supervise, surveill, and control. What people don't understand about the child welfare system, and this is one of the things people should watch for, is that they basically can put people on parole without ever having arrested or convicted them. In other words, they say, if you want to keep your kid or if you don't want to be dragged into court to have to prove that you can keep your kid, then you better let us come into your house this many times, you better go to parenting classes whether or not you need the parenting classes, you have to go to drug treatment whether or not you need drug treatment, you might have to stop getting the methadone that is working for you because the judge doesn't under -- thinks methadone is another form of -- an illegal drug or another form of dependency, which is wrong.

So, what we see around the country is, as legalization happens in Colorado and other places, the backlash, and there's always a backlash, is taking place against pregnant women and parents. So the argument is, okeh, we're not going to criminalize you for using marijuana, but if you use marijuana around a child, we're going to call it child abuse and take your kid away, or criminalize that as child abuse. So people have to be willing to look not only at the criminal justice system, but also the extraordinary abuses in the United States of the civil child welfare system that confuses a positive drug test with a test for parenting.

DOUG MCVAY: You're listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Let's get back to that interview with Lynn Paltrow. She's the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

There is a lot of work going on in preparation for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. It's coming up in April of 2016. You're involved in some of that prep work. Tell me what's going on there.

LYNN PALTROW: Well, in anticipation of UNGASS 2016, National Advocates for Pregnant Women is spearheading a women's declaration calling for global drug policies that support women, children, and families. And what it seeks to do is to engage organizations that advocate on behalf of women, that advocate against gender discrimination, that advocate on behalf of children, who may have not ever really thought about global drug policies, or local drug policies, but who, when they talk about this, when they look at that issue, recognize that punitive drug policies are hurting pregnant women, they're hurting women, they're hurting families. The fastest growing of women incarcerated in the United States -- the fastest growing group of people incarcerated in the United States are women, they're women of color, African American women, and it is primarily because of drug laws. They're often disproportionately punished, and when you lock up women, they are overwhelmingly the people who are responsible for the children at home, and so you are taking away the person who's raising children, you're undermining families.

So we are looking for organizations that work against gender discrimination, advocate for women, children, and families, who will join our declaration, and you'll be able to find it at our website, AdvocatesForPregnantWomen.org, so that the United Nations knows that it's not just drug policy organizations, it's not just people who you might think of as having a particular interest, it is anybody concerned with human rights, anybody concerned with women's rights, and the wellbeing of women, children, and families.

DOUG MCVAY: I want to find out marijuana, especially because I'm in Oregon, and so with legalization --

LYNN PALTROW: In Oregon, I think they delegated, and correct me if I'm wrong, but they delegated work to the Department of Health in terms of creating appropriate regulations, and one of the recommendations based on reviews of research on pregnant women's use of marijuana, they have come out with special warnings that have to be put up in dispensaries warning pregnant women of the risk of harm. And the problem with that is, we do want people to be informed, people should absolutely know that, whatever they put into their bodies, what the risks of harm are. But the studies that they relied on are very limited, and very biased. The National Institute on Drug Abuse only funds people who say they're looking for, and finding, harm, or abuse. Many of the studies they cited claimed to find harms, when in fact what they found were differences, and the children in both groups were both in the range of normal on the various criteria they used. There were some studies where kids who were exposed prenatally to marijuana do better, but they don't highlight those.

And so, what they're doing is, they're creating a warning based on limited research that has never asked the question about what benefits there might be, has never asked the question the relative value of, for example, using marijuana versus the prescription medication for women with severe morning sickness, and they haven't looked at the actual peer reviewed research about similar warning signs around alcohol. Those signs have been around a long time, they place all the blame and all the responsibility on the woman for the outcome of her pregnancy, so we continue to reinforce and recycle that notion of women solely have the responsibility for the wellbeing of America's children.

It takes men completely off the hook, it doesn't encourage any kind of research about male contribution to pregnancies, the outcomes of pregnancy that they contribute to, and in fact, there are studies looking at the effectiveness of alcohol warnings to pregnant women, which we have in New York, many states have. They don't do anything, except -- I mean and I'm not sure they studied this part -- they don't do anything to reduce drinking, they don't do anything effective in that way, but what they probably are effective at is reinforcing the very gender discriminatory notion that everything that's wrong with children is mom's fault, and that as a society we don't have a collective responsibility for ensuring the wellbeing of children.

DOUG MCVAY: How do you think the concerns and the response to, I think the term of art is neonates, the young children who are --

LYNN PALTROW: Neonatal abstinence syndrome.

DOUG MCVAY: Neonatal abstinence syndrome. The response, and the attitudes toward that, versus the "crack babies", the hysteria over that?

LYNN PALTROW: Part of the question is, you know, how punitive is the response? And the response to the early research on prenatal exposure to cocaine, and we know that crack is the same as cocaine, it's just a smokable form. The response was so punitive, overwhelmingly punitive, because people imagined that the people who used that, who smoked cocaine while pregnant, were African American women, who we've been -- have always been punished, have always been subject to control and punishment, and stigmatization, and being devalued in every which way.

When there was a methamphetamine scare, and we're talking about methamphetamine babies, there was less, because it was associated with white people, there was less, a little bit less follow-through on the threats of arrest, although the child welfare system in more than 20 states is being used to punish people for drug use, not to ensure that parenting, that children are protected from parents who really aren't parenting, who are actually abusing them.

We're seeing the -- what we see though is this build, so you get South Carolina as the only state that starts to allow arrests of pregnant women, in the midst of the so-called "crack baby" scare, and even though we won that Supreme Court case in South Carolina, that was only about searches and seizure, it wasn't the concept of, can a woman be treated as a criminal because she's engaged in some action somebody decides is endangering to her future child. Because in fact, once you open the door through drug alarm, it doesn't stay limited to drugs. Women in South Carolina have been arrested for drinking alcohol while pregnant, for attempting suicide by jumping out of a building while pregnant, and for suffering stillbirths that have nothing to do with their drug use.

In Alabama, Alabama in response to the methamphetamine scares passed a chemical endangerment of a child law that was explicitly limited to punishing adults who bring children to dangerous places like meth labs. They very clearly said this is not about pregnant women or anything else, and yet, it was then used by prosecutors to arrest pregnant women who used any controlled substance. It went all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court, the supreme court had the legislative history, the legislative language, which very clearly said, you can't bring a child to a dangerous environment, and they said in Alabama the word "child" means a fertilized egg, and a womb is a fertilized environment, so a pregnant woman is a dangerous environment to her own child, and because of the way they interpreted the law it's now criminal for a woman who becomes pregnant to use any controlled substance, even if it's prescribed to her by a doctor, because there's no exemption for -- nobody prescribes to a fertilized egg, or an embryo, or a fetus, so, both the doctor and the woman can be arrested. And there's been a terrific, in ProPublica, Nina Martin has now done an award winning expose about over 400 women arrested in Alabama.

And Tennessee, Tennessee used the scare about neonatal abstinence syndrome to push through the first law in which a legislature said, we want, you know, honestly openly to have the power to arrest pregnant women, and we're going to do it through the claim that it's addressing this epidemic of -- which doesn't exist -- of neonatal abstinence syndrome babies. And what we have there is, you know, it's a pattern we see, and it's a lack of accountability.

A doctor published an article in a peer -- very fancy peer reviewed medical journal purporting to show this alarming increase in newborns with this transitory and treatable set of symptoms that is very transitory and very treatable if you respond by keeping the mom and baby together, and that create -- he took no responsibility in writing that article for how an alarm about pregnant women and drug use would be used in our culture. He should not -- you know, researchers have to think about, and right now -- I'm jumping around, but -- the neonatal abstinence syndrome scare, what the Tennessee legislature claimed was their law, and they amended all of these assault laws to become fetal assault laws that could be used against pregnant women.

And although they sort of tricked people into thinking it would just be used against women who used narcotic drugs, presumably opioids, and it would only be used against women who used opioids and gave birth to babies who were born quote unquote "addicted," even though medically there is -- babies can't be born addicted to anything, because that involves drug seeking behavior, it's a word that's not a medical word, that they can have a withdrawal syndrome. So, it would only be applied to women who used narcotics, it would only be applied to women whose babies were born addicted or harmed, whatever those two words mean, and there would only be a misdemeanor charge. In fact, a woman who was pregnant, driving without a seatbelt, and ran -- and drove away from the police have been arrested for fetal endangerment under that law, used no drugs. Women who use non-narcotic drugs have been arrested, and women who've used drugs who've given birth to perfectly healthy babies have been arrested under that law.

So they used the drug war propaganda, the assumption of harm, to justify passing a law that allows them to arrest women, and not just -- they said for misdemeanors, they're arresting them for felonies. So, what we see is, in the United States, is not only, while we are doing a good job of bringing attention to the need for decriminalization of drugs, what I'm afraid is happening is, we're doing a good job, the decriminalization of men who use drugs, and the backlash is coming by increasing the ability to arrest women who use drugs. The fact is that almost every state only punishes possession, which means you have to have it on you, not in you. So if you're a man and you go to the emergency room, and you test positive for a drug, you're not going to have to worry that your doctor's going to feel obliged to turn that information over to anybody, even if you're a father of a one-month old or a one-day old.

What Tennessee has done, and what court decisions in Alabama and South Carolina have done, is that they have created an explicitly gender discriminatory drug use law, that makes use itself a crime, but only for people with the capacity for pregnancy. So, a man, a boyfriend and his girlfriend in Alabama smoke a little pot, she has to know every minute of every day if she's pregnant, because their use isn't criminalized, but if she becomes pregnant, even for one minute, then her use is chemical endangerment of a child, and she can be charged with a felony.

DOUG MCVAY: It's getting late, and I've -- you've been so kind to give me so much of your time. Give me any closing thoughts you might have, and please, tell my listeners where they can find out more about the work that you're doing.

LYNN PALTROW: They can reach us on the internet at AdvocatesForPregnantWomen.org. We work to ensure that nobody loses their civil rights as a result of pregnancy. We advocate for pregnant women who want to end their pregnancies through abortion, women who want to have -- go to term and have respectful births, and women who experience pregnancy losses of all kinds. And we also focus on the women who are most vulnerable to state control and punishment. So that's low income women, women of color, and also drug using women. And we do recognize that there are trans-gender people who can become pregnant as well, and we advocate for anybody who has the capacity for pregnancy, and anybody who's facing discrimination or punishment because of that pregnancy or capacity for it.

DOUG MCVAY: That was an interview with Lynn Paltrow. She's the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. And well, that's it for this week. Thank you for joining us. You've been listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please be sure to give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, please give it a like and share it with friends. You can follow me on twitter, I'm @DrugPolicyFacts and of course also @DougMcVay. This is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.