More than 30 Oklahoma doctors call for end to criminalization of drug use during pregnancy

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Thirty-seven Oklahoma doctors are publicly denouncing the criminalization of pregnancy and drug use. Instead, they’re advocating for therapeutic support for these pregnant mothers. The public letter comes after an Oklahoma woman was convicted of manslaughter after suffering a miscarriage.

“These women are being charged with manslaughter for experiencing the loss of a pregnancy and there’s been no scientific evidence showing that their drug use caused the pregnancy loss,” said Oklahoma City OBGYN Dr. Kate Arnold. “So, I signed it because I’m worried that all of this will prevent patients who need to be seen by us being able to come to us.”

The public letter, released Tuesday, speaks of three Oklahoma women who have been charged with manslaughter after a loss of pregnancy. One of those is 21-year-old Brittney Poolaw, who was sentenced to four years in prison in October for suffering a miscarriage while using methamphetamine.

The National Advocates for Pregnant Women is condemning the sentence.

“The medical examiner’s report itself does not identify her alleged use of methamphetamine as the cause of the miscarriage and there’s a very important reason for that. Methamphetamine use does not cause pregnancy loss,” said Dana Sussman, the organization’s deputy executive director.

She said the medical examiner’s report only gave a list of contributing factors.

“It listed placental abruption, fetal abnormality, infection,” Sussman explained. “It also did list methamphetamine use as a potential contributing factor. It did not state that it was a cause and it could not attribute any single thing to the cause of the miscarriage.”

FILE: A pregnant woman holds her stomach. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

These advocates fear a chilling effect on pregnant women seeking medical help, fearing the doctor will turn them in to law enforcement for their drug use.

“If they’re not coming into the doctor, then we can’t help,” Arnold said. “Oklahoma has been prosecuting these women, supposedly with the hopes that if we can prosecute it that it will deter drug use during pregnancy. The problem that we as physicians see is this has actually already been tried in many other states and it does not improve outcomes. In fact, it leads to worse outcomes.”

Arnold concludes it’s best for both the mother and child if they see a doctor during pregnancy. This way they can monitor things heavily and prescribe necessary medications.

“My fear is that there’ll be a woman who’s pregnant, who’s using drugs who thinks, ‘Hey I’m going to use this appointment with my doctor,’ and then somebody else says, ‘Hey, I just read this news article. You could go to jail for that. You shouldn’t go in.’ So, I’m worried it will keep women from going to the doctor.”

In the public letter, the doctors call out Comanche County District Attorney Kyle Cabelka for his prosecution against Poolaw. KFOR reached out to his office for comment, but have yet to hear back.

“Scaring pregnant patients away from the doctor’s office will not move us closer to healthier pregnancies and deliveries in Oklahoma,” the letter said. “How can our patients trust us if they fear we may call the police and have them arrested when we leave the exam room? Together, we call on all Oklahoma district attorneys to end the prosecution of women with substance abuse disorders that didn’t cease to exist once they became pregnant. In particular, we demand that Comanche County District Attorney Kyle Calbeka, who is prosecuting the majority of these cases, stop this harmful practice. If the purpose of these prosecutions is to improve the health and safety of Oklahoma babies and their mothers, the effect is the exact opposite. These prosecutions make it difficult to ensure our patients get the healthcare and support they need because they may reasonably fear criminal prosecution. If this optional prosecution stance persists, the negative health outcomes for mothers and babies in our state can only grow more dire.”

Meanwhile, Sussman reports Poolaw is considering filing an appeal against her sentence.

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