This week, National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), with local counsel Megan Hayes, filed an amicus brief in the Wyoming Supreme Court on behalf of thirteen experts in and advocates for maternal, infant, and child health in support of Leigha Stewart. Ms. Stewart gave birth to a healthy baby and is being wrongfully prosecuted for criminal child endangerment. The prosecutor claimed that she endangered a child by being pregnant and using a controlled substance.
Ms. Stewart’s prosecution relies upon an unprecedented and unconstitutional expansion of Wyoming’s criminal chemical endangerment statute to authorize the prosecution of a person who is pregnant and allegedly created a risk of harm to the fetus. The prosecution’s interpretation of the statute has been firmly and repeatedly rejected by the Wyoming legislature and courts in recognition of the dangers such prosecutions would pose to maternal, infant, and child health. Indeed, Tennessee is the only state that has enacted legislation authorizing the prosecution of pregnancy and alleged drug use, and the law was allowed to sunset after only two years because of its demonstrated disastrous impact on maternal, fetal, and child health.
As NAPW’s amicus brief explains, the extension of criminal child endangerment statutes to reach pregnancy is uniformly and adamantly opposed by the nation’s leading health authorities, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Medical Association, and American Public Health Association. Indisputable evidence establishes that pregnant women who desire drug treatment and prenatal care are dissuaded from seeking it when faced with the threat of prosecution and its attendant harms for themselves, their pregnancies, their future children, and their families. Pregnant women’s reluctance to seek prenatal care or engage with health professionals for fear of prosecution in turn leads to damaging health outcomes for these women and their infants.
Accordingly, this criminal prosecution undermines the very interests that the prosecution here seeks to advance—the protection of maternal, infant, and child health. Not only is such prosecution contrary to legislative intent and all Wyoming judicial precedent, it lacks any justification from the perspective of public health and safety. In short, it puts the health of both mothers and babies at risk.
NAPW will continue to fight for the right of Ms. Stewart—and all pregnant people—to access health care without fear of unauthorized and dangerous criminal prosecutions.
UPDATE: In March 2021, the prosecution dropped the child endangerment charges against Ms. Stewart. The prosecution's decision represents a victory both for Ms. Stewart and for all Wyoming women who are facing criminal charges for pregnancy and alleged drug use. Maternal and infant health are best served by the provision of compassionate healthcare, not by criminal prosecutions.