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Woman Charged With Child Abuse for Drinking

January 21, 1990

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) _ A pregnant woman has been charged with child abuse after prosecutors accused her of excessive drinking, drawing fire from civil libertarians who call the case unprecedented prenatal interference.

The woman’s attorney said such cases would encourage abortions, but the county attorney said prosecutors shouldn’t have to wait until a child is born with defects to act to protect it.

Diane Pfannenstiel, 29, who is between four and five months pregnant, was charged earlier this month with felony child abuse because her blood-alcohol level was above the standard used to determine drunk drivers, according to Albany County Attorney Cal Rerucha.

The woman was under a judge’s order to avoid alcohol because a previous child she had was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, according to court records.

″If people are concerned with right to life, then they don’t encourage abortion by this kind of abusive prosecution,″ the defendant’s attorney Mary Galvan said Friday.

″There is no law in the state of Wyoming that makes it illegal for a pregnant woman to drink ... that makes it illegal for a woman of childbearing years to drink,″ Galvan said.

Such prosecutions could only encourage women who have drunk alcohol to have an abortion to avoid prosecution, Galvan added.

According to Galvan, police measured Pfannenstiel’s blood-alcohol level only after the woman came to the police department to report that her husband had abused her. The next day Rerucha charged her with child abuse, said Galvan.

The child abuse charge breaks new ground, according to Lynn Paltrow, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer.

″Thus far we have not documented any prosections for engaging in the use of alcohol during pregnancy,″ said Paltrow.

″This case points to the frightening possibility of states creating prenatal police patrol. This prosecutor is making up a crime.″

When asked Sunday if there was any precedent for prenatal prosecution of alcohol use, Rerucha replied: ″I don’t care if it’s precedent-setting, all I care about is protecting one child in Wyoming.″

A Florida woman was found guilty in August of delivery of cocaine through her umbilical cord to two of her children and an Illinois woman was found guilty of child abuse because of prenatal drug use, but neither woman was prosecuted until after the children were born.

Rerucha had said earlier that there were cases similar to the one he brought in Ohio and New York, and while he said all cases differ in the details, most of the cases were brought after the child was born. He did not elaborate on whether the cases related to alcohol or drug use.

The complaint Rerucha filed against Pfannenstiel charges that during October, November, December and January the woman ″recklessly inflicted injury on an unborn child″ by ″repeatedly″ consuming alcohol ″in an excessive amount which she knows will cause serious physical injury upon her unborn child.″ A preliminary hearing is scheduled Feb. 1.

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