The risks of substance addiction for both mother and baby are well documented. There is no debate that babies born to mothers who abuse alcohol or substances face many dangerous symptoms.
Unfortunately, these very real risks to infant health and well-being, as well as society’s false expectations about women, motherhood and addiction—for instance, the idea that substance use is always recreational instead of related to physical and emotional dependency, or that a “good” mother would be able to easily overcome her addiction for the sake of her child—has brought on an approach often fraught with shaming and guilt-inducing tactics.
Tennessee’s Fetal Assault Law
On April 29, 2014, HB 1660, sponsored by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster), and otherwise known as the Fetal Assault Law, was passed on a temporary trial basis. The bill allowed pregnant individuals to be charged with aggravated assault if their baby was born with health complications after the mother had used illegal drugs such as heroin. While the bill included language about seeking treatment, many hospitals and recovery centers refused to allow pregnant women to be admitted due to the new potential criminal charges associated with substance use during a pregnancy, ironically leading many women to avoid rather than seek help. Many women report having avoided even routine prenatal visits out of fear of retribution and having their children removed and placed in foster care after birth, as people convicted of aggravated assault in Tennessee risk being incarcerated for up to 15 years.
Ironically, since the two years of the bill’s effect, the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital reported no decrease in babies born with NAS. One mother, Brittany Nicole Hudson, who spoke out against the law, gave birth on the side of the road in October 2014 due to fear of prosecution if she sought medical treatment, and was sentenced to two sentences of 29 days and 11 months under a plea deal. Several other mothers asked to testify regarding the bill cited similar experiences of fear, shame and a lack of available treatment options, while medical professionals cited the importance of psychiatric care alongside medical treatment rather than the comparatively ineffective, purely punitive approach. Lawmakers became concerned that women were even seeking abortions out of fear of criminal charges. Due to these concerns, in March of this year, the bill was voted down by the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, failing to become permanent.
Recovery is Always Possible
Like any other addict, pregnant women with addictions need to be clinically supported to deal with any chemical dependency, physical complications, emotional distress, and/or mental health problems they may be facing. Women are also likelier than men to have experienced physical or sexual abuse and to experience depression, all of which are common factors in the development of substance addictions. Moreover, pregnant women in particular are undergoing a great deal of emotional, hormonal, and physical stress; if substance abuse is part of a woman’s unhealthy constellation of coping mechanisms, it may be even more difficult to attempt recovery during a pregnancy.
Luckily, some health care providers are placing both women’s and children’s health first by providing comprehensive programs to attend to the physical, mental and emotional needs of addicted mothers and their babies. These programs, such as the Center for Addiction and Pregnancy at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and the addiction recovery program at the Magee-Women’s Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, provide overnight care, medication-assisted treatment, individual and group therapy, psychiatric care, family planning services, obstetric care, and pediatric health care to women. These initiatives have proven far more effective than punitive measures like the Fetal Assault Law and have significantly reduced the number of babies who are born requiring medication to reduce withdrawal symptoms.
If you are facing addiction and are pregnant or may become pregnant, seek out medical treatment at a program you trust rather than trying to face your addiction alone. Don’t succumb to shame and guilt. Addiction is a complex problem faced by millions of people, and you will only sabotage yourself and your child’s health by allowing yourself to buy into shaming rhetoric rather than bravely seeking the assistance you need.