Court Declines to Hear Treatment v. Jail Case

Press Release May 25, 1998
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 510-208-7711 x 1383

WASHINGTON, DC — Today the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a South Carolina Supreme Court decision extending the state’s child abuse laws to allow for the prosecution of pregnant women for conduct that may affect their fetuses. Health professionals and drug treatment supporters have rallied against the policy of South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon who is arresting and jailing pregnant women and mothers who suffer from chemical dependence rather than offering them drug treatment and prenatal care. Specifically, the groups joined two women, Cornelia Whitner and Malissa Ann Crawley, in their request that the Supreme Court hear their case, Whitner v. South Carolina.

“We are disappointed that the Court chose not to take this case. As long as the South Carolina law remains in effect, pregnant women will be deterred from seeking medical care. However, we are confident that the vital health issues presented in this case will be heard by the court in the future,” said Carol Tracy, Executive Director of the Women’s Law Project. “Treatment centers are already reporting that far fewer women are seeking treatment due to Attorney General Condon’s tactics. Women who want and need treatment fear being jailed instead. As a result, they and their children are suffering.”

“South Carolina’s War on Drugs has turned into a war on pregnant women who need treatment,” said Daniel Abrahamson, Director of Legal Affairs for The Lindesmith Center and one of the attorneys representing the broad array of health organizations before the High Court in this case. “Physicians and treatment providers agree that treatment, not prosecution, is the best way to help pregnant women suffering from chemical dependence. South Carolina’s misguided and draconian policy of jailing pregnant women in need of treatment hurts those women and children who need the most help.”

In April, The Lindesmith Center filed a “friend of the court” brief opposing the South Carolina decision on behalf of physicians, health advocacy groups and drug treatment providers including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Nurses Association and the American Medical Women’s Association. These groups see the case as one that underscores the need to make substance abuse treatment more available to pregnant women.

In addition to medical and health groups, leading researchers on cocaine and pregnancy have joined the friend-of-the-court brief, including Dr. Ira Chasnoff, President of the National Association for Families and Addiction Research and Education. Dr. Chasnoff has found that cocaine’s harms have been exaggerated, but like all potentially harmful substances, including cigarettes and alcohol, it should be dealt with through treatment, not incarceration.

Although the Whitner case involves women who ingested cocaine while pregnant, South Carolina physicians and other health care professionals are particularly outraged by the state court’s decision because they are now obligated by law to turn in to state authorities for possible prosecution pregnant women who take any action which may endanger the health of a viable fetus. This requirement violates the principle of doctor-patient confidentiality which is essential to effective medical care. Moreover, physicians and thousands of other treatment and social services professionals who refuse to report their patients to authorities themselves face arrest and prosecution under South Carolina law.

Based in New York, the Lindesmith Center is a drug policy research institute that concentrates on broadening the drug policy debate. The Lindesmith Center is a project of the Open Society Institute. Founded by philanthropist George Soros, the Open Society Institute promotes the development of open societies around the world through projects relating to education, media, legal reform and human rights. The founder and director of The Lindesmith Center is Ethan Nadelmann, J.D., Ph.D. , author of Cops Across Borders: The Internationalization of U.S. Criminal Law Enforcement (Penn State Press, 1993) as well as numerous articles on drug control policy in leading scholarly and popular journals.

For more information, see:
Full text of the briefs written on behalf of Cornelia Whitner
Research Brief on Cocaine and Pregnancy
Fact sheet on Whitner v South Carolina

For further comment:
Daniel Abrahamson
Director of Legal Affairs
The Lindesmith Center
415-554-1900 – office
415-995-2194 – v mail
415-999-7441 – cellular phone

Susan Frietsche or Carol Tracy
Women’s Law Project

Lynn Paltrow
Counsel for Malissa Ann Crawley and Cornelia Whitner
Cooperating Attorney
Center for Constitutional Rights

C. Rauch Wise
ACLU of South Carolina Foundation

Groups Submitting This Brief To The US Supreme Court Include:
National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors
South Carolina Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
National Association of Social Workers
American Nurses Association
South Carolina Nurses Association
American Medical Women’s Association
National Association for Families and Addiction Research and Education
Association for Medical Education and Research In Substance Abuse
American Academy on Physician and Patient
Society of General Internal Medicine
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
National Center for Youth Law
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Coalition on Addiction, Pregnancy and Parenting
NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund
Legal Action Center
Women’s Law Project
Drug Policy Foundation
Alliance for South Carolina’s Children

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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