Idaho Governor Hit for Plan to Jail Pregnant Drug Users
IDAHO Gov. Cecil Andrus (D), who was the hero of abortion rights groups and women's organizations last year, has opened the state's 1991 legislative season amid a chorus of criticism from those same groups. Governor Andrus, who had long opposed abortion on demand, last March vetoed a bill that would have outlawed most abortions in Idaho. Drafted by the National Right to Life Committee, that bill was designed to force a challenge of the US Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. Andrus declared it overly restrictive.
But when he announced his agenda for the coming year recently, Andrus proposed $284,000 program to lock up pregnant women who abuse drugs.
``In Idaho in 1991, some pregnant women are endangering their own health and the health of their unborn children by using illegal drugs,'' he says.
``This must stop. I will work with Attorney General [Larry] EchoHawk to prepare legislation that will pass a constitutional test and provide civil commitment of, and drug treatment for, a pregnant woman who abuses drugs and refuses to enter treatment,'' he says.
Idaho women's groups and abortion rights activists, who worked for Andrus's reelection to a record fourth term last fall, were dismayed by the plan and surprised to be fighting another battle over women's rights.
Abortion is an unpopular issue in the legislature this year, because most of the sponsors of last year's restrictive abortion law were not reelected last November.
``The best light I can put on it is I think there are aspects of the issue he doesn't understand,'' says Linda King-White, executive director of Idaho Planned Parenthood.
Andrus's approach would put the state on ``a very slippery slope'' down which it could slide toward ever more restrictions of the rights of pregnant women, she says.
MS. KING-WHITE questioned whether Andrus has explored the impact of his plan. ``If it were an environmental issue, he would understand the complexities,'' she says, noting that he was US secretary of the interior in the Carter administration.
She says Andrus's plan would likely fail since insurers for drug treatment centers often discourage the acceptance of pregnant clients, claiming that they are high-risk patients and more likely to sue the facility.
The Idaho chapter of the National Organization for Women is also gearing up to oppose Andrus' proposal. ``We do not think its a very good idea,'' says coordinator Bonnie Sharp. ``The problem I see is that when legislation and ideas like that come along, always the funding does not come along with it,'' she says.
And the Idaho Women's Network, which has applauded Andrus's appointment of women to court positions and top government posts, is also expected to oppose the plan.
``I anticipate that we will be ardently opposed, but I don't know,'' says executive director Betsy Dunklin. ``I think it is further victimizing the victim, turning a woman that already has a problem into a criminal.''
``Certainly, the governor's done a lot of good things. I just think he's off-base on this particular issue,'' she says. ``It's not going to help women or children.''
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Idaho, which lobbied extensively against last year's proposed abortion restrictions, has had the strongest criticism for the new Andrus plan.
``Drug abuse during pregnancy is a serious health problem with potentially tragic consequences, for the mother and infant, but this type of legislation can be tragically counterproductive,'' says Janet Crepps, the ACLU's lobbyist.
``It will deter women from seeking medical care and turn doctors and nurses from care providers into pregnancy police,'' Ms. Crepps says.
Several women who serve in the Idaho House and Senate have wondered aloud if the governor would also seek to lock up pregnant women who drink alcohol, ski, and drive cars.
Andrus has not yet begun to debate the plan. But his press aide is confident the governor will find plenty of allies.
``Those individuals who see what really happens to those babies, we believe will support the governor's position,'' says press secretary Scott Peyron.