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The Wyoming woman must have hit bottom, or some narrow ledge over that abyss, on Jan. 2 when she walked out of her home and checked into a motel in Laramie. Just last fall, 29-year-old Diane Pfannenstiel had lost custody of her two children, one four years old, the other six months old. Her family was what the social workers and judges genteelly call "dysfunctional."

She was pregnant again. Four days earlier, she had returned from an alcohol-rehabilitation program. Now she had left home with little more than the bruises on her back, her neck, her arms -- the ones that came, she says, from her husband when he choked and beat her.

Somehow, this woman had enough of a survival instinct left to call SAFE, a project for battered women. The people there brought her to the police station to have her bruises photographed, to have her husband charged with abuse, and then they brought her to the hospital. Then something happened. Pfannenstiel was arrested.

In custody of the police, Diane Pfannenstiel was tested for alcohol, jailed and then charged with the crime of drinking while pregnant. She was prosecuted for felony child abuse.

So her name is added to the roll call -- not a very distinguished list but a growing one -- of some three dozen pregnant women who have become the targets of the latest fad of copycat criminal prosecutions. It has become trendy to arrest pregnant women for endangering their fetuses.

Just this year, in Florida, Jennifer Johnson was convicted of delivering a controlled substance to a minor, her fetus. In Illinois, Melanie Green was charged with manslaughter for the death of a baby connected to her alleged cocaine use. And in South Carolina, perhaps a dozen women have been arrested after the hospitals they went to for maternity care tested them for cocaine and turned them in to the police.

Behind most of these cases are prosecutors who assume the mantle of protector of the fetus, who try to separate the "innocent" unborn from its "guilty" bearer. Indeed this mantle has become a popular costume in an era when we know and worry more about life in the womb and how it can be damaged.

A 29-year-old woman is not barred from drinking in Wyoming. Diane Pfannenstiel was prosecuted solely because she was pregnant. It isn't an idle ride on the slippery slope to ask whether women might also be arrested for disobeying other health commandments. As her lawyer, Mary Elizabeth Galvan, asked: "If I am pregnant, can the state regulate my life? What if I am smoking? What if I am living with a man who smokes?"

There is something even more pernicious behind this wave of arrests: a not-so-subtle shift of focus. Americans no longer feel as confident in our collective ability or willingness to help others. We hear little lately about the state's obligation to provide care; little about the pregnant women who can't afford proper care and their damaged fetuses.

Communities that are slow and stingy with support may be quick to prosecute. In South Carolina, one of the very hospitals testing and turning in pregnant cocaine addicts has no facilities for treating them. In retreat from principles of communal responsibility, we are trying to force individual responsibility.

The case against Diane Pfannenstiel was dismissed last week -- but only because the prosecutor failed to prove she'd hurt the fetus. If it's born damaged, she could still be liable. And if convicted of this felony charge, would the newborn also end up in foster care? What would happen next? Where is the quick fix for mother or child?

Underlying the urge to prosecute, there is a belief that the addicted woman is failing willfully, selfishly, to take care of her fetus. The sadder reality is that an addicted woman has failed to take care of herself as well as her womb. That is a lesson she won't learn in jail.

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