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The Rights of the Fetus When Mothers Use Drugs

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The Rights of the Fetus When Mothers Use Drugs

mother and childI wrote briefly about fetal alcohol syndrome in April 2012 in a broader post about how alcohol is decimating Native American communities. Fetal alcohol syndrome occurs when a women drinks excessively during pregnancy and results in several problems that could take up a whole other post. A British study published in June 2013 found no problem with pregnant women drinking a glass of wine a day, saying that children would not suffer, and an article later in the year in The Huffington Post supported the case for low-level drinking during pregnancy. (However, an epidemiologist interviewed for the article said that the effect on children may be subtle.)

I wonder if the controversy over drinking during pregnancy occasionally hits the news because alcohol is the most socially acceptable drug (has marijuana supplanted it yet?). But alcohol is only one drug. I don’t know if any pregnant woman suffering from alcoholism has been arrested because of her drinking, but scads of other drugs besides alcohol cross the placenta as well.

We know that has serious ramifications; for example, here’s some of the latest news from The Partnership at Toddlers of mothers who took meth and who live in a stressful environment have been found to have an abnormal stress response, which in turn, puts them at greater risk for depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

In the fall of 2013, The New York Times had an interesting story of a pregnant Wisconsin woman who was arrested and sent to rehab for PAST drug use. Last summer, Alicia Beltran, 28, admitted at a doctor’s appointment that she had been addicted to prescription pills the previous year (2012). A doctor and social worker said that she was endangering her unborn child because she wouldn’t start on the anti-addiction drug that they wanted her to. Her argument was that she had stopped on her own and didn’t need another drug—she was sober. (She couldn’t afford Suboxone, but she got some from a friend and weaned herself off pain pills. Indeed, a drug test did turn up traces of that drug, and that drug alone.)

It sounded from the article that Beltran was immediately taken to court, in shackles no less, and learned that a legal guardian had been appointed for her fetus. She asked a court commissioner for a lawyer for herself, but was denied.

Beltran attended a court-ordered rehab but also challenged a 1998 Wisconsin law that was causing the problem. It’s called the “cocaine mom” act and states that pregnant women who uses illegal drugs or alcohol excessively and refuses to accept treatment can be confined.

Minnesota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota have similar laws, and other states use “civil-confinement, child-protection, or other laws for the same end.” The lawsuit argues that the law deprives women of their due process, among other things. However, courts in 20 states have blocked the use of laws like this against pregnant women.

Three years ago, according to the article, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that jail and the threat of jail are ineffective in reducing alcohol or drug abuse, and that if you order women to be tested they tend to avoid prenatal care, which in itself can reduce the negative effects of substance abuse.

The case raises some scary questions when it comes to mothers’ rights and the rights of the fetus. Using drugs while pregnant can indeed hurt the fetus, and we hear and read horrible stories about women using drugs while pregnant. But it seems as if Beltran should have been in the clear. And now she’s afraid about whether or not the court could take her baby.

If you’d like to know more about fetal alcohol syndrome and drinking, the CDC has information here:

If you’d like to know more about drug use and pregnancy, WebMd has information here:



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