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The news came one late afternoon. My girlfriend told me that Naomi had given birth. Instead of feeling joyous over the birth of my one time friend’s child, I felt both saddened and angry about this occasion. So I asked the inevitable question, “Is it OK?” The response to my question was just what I had hoped would not happen.
Naomi is a heroin addict. She had just given birth to a premature baby boy that was addicted to the same drug his mother was shooting up. This innocent little guy was born with what doctors say is a mild form of brain damage. For the first few weeks of his life, he had to be treated with methadone to combat his withdrawal symptoms. Despite the severe damage Naomi caused to her baby, she still walks the streets of Carlsbad looking for her fix. The last I had heard of the little boy was that he was taken by Child Protective Services and placed in foster care waiting for a home.
Mothers who prenatally expose their babies to hard illegal drugs cause serious damage to these children and should be criminally prosecuted. The physical, neurological, and behavioral effects on babies caused by drug use during pregnancy are disheartening. In spite of this blatant disregard for the child’s life, it is not considered a form of child abuse in most of our states. If a mother injected drugs into the tiny arm of her baby, causing permanent brain damage or death, surely the mother would be arrested and prosecuted. Yet that is exactly what addicted mothers do when they consume drugs throughout their pregnancy.
In California, when a woman gives birth to baby with illegal drugs in its system, not much happens to the mother. According to an official from San Diego County’s Child Protective Services, the baby is placed on hold and is put in foster care. The case is then referred to family court for review. A judge then looks at the extent of the mother’s drug use and decides if it is safe to return the child to its mother. Depending on the amount of drug abuse, a mother is referred to a drug treatment program. If the mother completes her assigned program, she is reunited with her child. If she does not complete the program, the baby is then left in foster care and goes up for adoption.
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An estimated 375,000 babies are born each year in the United States who have been exposed to illicit drugs in the womb. That equals one out of every ten newborns (Shniderman et al. 6). This alarming statistic does not seem like it will be going down any time soon. With virtually no legal actions taken against these mothers, there does not appear to be any reason to think otherwise.
Most of the research that has been done on prenatal drug exposure has been on the effects of hard illicit drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin. The severity of problems these drug-exposed face are disturbing. The physical, neurological, and behavioral effects that crack-exposed children go through should open our eyes to try and find a solution to this inexcusable dilemma.
When a pregnant woman uses illicit drugs such as crack and heroin, the damaging effects begin with the fetus. Researchers have found that the fetus’ brain is often damaged and the amount of damage varies by the amount of drug exposure (Hopkins 69). A pregnant woman’s use crack can also trigger spasms in the fetus’ blood vessels causing a severe restriction of the vital flow of nutrients and oxygen. This lack of vital supplements can impair fetal growth and cause a child to be born with deformities (Langone 85). If the fetus survives these obstacles, it may come into this world with serious health problems.
Because of drug exposure in the womb, many of these babies are all too often born premature and weigh less than a baby that has reached the full gestation period. Dr. Gordon B. Avery of Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C., reports that some of these babies may weigh as little as two pounds at birth (Kantrowitz 62). Along with the risk of premature delivery, comes the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Babies exposed to heroin are five to ten times more likely than normal babies to die of SIDS (Shniderman et al. 21).
In an article in Time, Anastasia Toufexis notes that children that are prenatally exposed to crack can be born with several deformities. Many of these deformities that are caused by insufficient nutrients, oxygen, and blood flow to the organs can be severe. A small head circumference, a trait associated with lower IQ scores, is one such common deformity. Other severe malformations include: deformed hearts and lungs, missing sections of kidneys and intestines, and a malformation of the spinal cord (59-60). In some cases extreme visible malformations of extremities are known to occur. According to an article in Discover, pediatrician Dr. Ira Chasnoff of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago states, “In several instances... ‘crack babies’ have been born without the two middle fingers of a hand. This is caused... by the loss of blood flow into those digits” (Revkin 68).
The use of illicit drugs by expectant mothers not only causes physical harm to babies, but can also cause some serious neurological problems for them as well. In the words of Marilee C. Rist, “... many evidently suffer permanent neurological damage from prenatal drug exposure. For them, coping with the normal activities and stimuli of daily life will be difficult” (30).
In a study done by researchers at UCSD, it was revealed that out of eighty-two crack-exposed infants studied, one-third of them had intercranial lesions in their brains. If these intercranial lesions, in other words “holes in their brains,” are deep into the brain, they can affect parts of the brain that govern learning and thinking. Other neurological problems include cerebral hemorrhaging and strokes (Toufexis 60).
According to Dr. Judy Howard, professor of clinical pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, babies exposed to drugs in the womb are at high risk for learning disabilities. Dr. Howard adds that crack-exposed children tend to score lower in standardized developmental tests (Yeager 70). A study of seventy crack-exposed toddlers done at Harlem Hospital found that 86% were slow in learning to talk (Toufexis 60).
The behavioral problems that affect drug-exposed children can begin from birth and can continue on until school age. Infants exposed to crack and heroin can be extremely irritable. They often cry in a high feline wail for hours, and nothing can console them (Hopkins 71). Researchers have also found that these infants tend to withdraw from intimate contact. Many of these babies have been found to arch their backs to avoid being picked up and touched. They also tend to avoid eye contact with its mother or anyone else (Revkin 66).
As these drug-exposed children become older, they continue to show signs of behavioral problems. Their hypersensitivity causes them to have a low level of tolerance for frustration. Carol Cole, a teacher and child development specialist in the Los Angeles Unified School District, claims that crack-exposed children tend to act aggressively when overstimulated (Rist 32). Charlie, a five year old crack-exposed boy from Los Angeles with severe behavioral problems, is an example of an aggressive child. “He sometimes erupts into frenzied episodes of thrashing about, pulling his hair, biting , and banging his head against the wall” (qtd. in Toufexis 58). Teachers across the country are having to find ways to deal with children like Charlie in order for them to have a chance to succeed in their years of schooling.
“A study of U.S. hospitals found that at least eleven percent of the pregnant women surveyed had exposed their unborn fetuses to illegal drugs.” (qtd. in Berger 41). This overwhelming statistic is an indication of the direction in which our country is headed. We as a society must find a way to curb this disturbing trend. Many experts believe that drug treatment is the way to deal with these pregnant addicts. While I believe that drug treatment might help some of them, is not sending a strong enough message to these child abusers.
I feel that we as voters must put pressure on our law makers to incorporate criminal prosecution for women who give birth to children with illegal drugs in their bloodstream. Our country’s legislators need to pass a federal law requiring all newborn babies to be tested for illegal drugs. Included in that law, should be clause that would charge a mother with child abuse if the baby tests positive for illegal drugs. Another possible solution is the mandatory use of birth control, such as the injected Norplant which lasts for about five years, for prior pregnant addicts.
“In a fifteen state survey by The Atlanta Constitution, seventy-one percent of the 7,500 people polled favored criminal penalties for pregnant women whose drug use injured their babies” (qtd. in Andonian 34). Currently only South Carolina treats drug addiction during pregnancy as child neglect and imprisons the new mothers. Efforts to do this in about thirty other states have been beaten back in the courts and in state legislatures (Levinson 1). Lawyers argue that these types of laws violate parental and privacy rights. But what gives these pregnant drug addicts the right harm to their innocent babies. There is no excuse for using drugs during pregnancy. A mother has a responsibility to protect not just herself but also her child from drugs. A fetus cannot just say no to drugs, but its mother can.