Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Should a Pregnant Woman Be Punished for Exposing Her Fetus to Risk?

When a woman becomes pregnant, it is very important for her to lead a healthy life: to eat plenty of nourishing food, get plenty of rest, and exercise regularly. It is also vital that she avoid anything that might harm her or her baby-to-be. For a pregnant woman, drug abuse is doubly dangerous. According to (daily news, 2010) one hundred babies are born with drug withdrawal symptoms every month. Some drugs can directly impair prenatal development, most of the body organs and systems of the baby-to-be are formed within the first ten weeks or so of pregnancy during this stage. After about the tenth week, the fetus should grow rapidly in weight and size. At this stage, certain drugs may damage organs that are still developing, such as the eyes, as well as the nervous system. Continuing drug use also increases the risk of miscarriage and premature delivery. But the greatest danger drugs pose at this stage is their potential to interfere with normal growth “low-birth weight babies require special care and run a much higher risk of severe health problems or even death”. (Murphy, 1998) 

The cases of women who are charged and convicted of child abuse even before they are born reflect an interesting intersection between the conservative War on Drugs and the conservative effort to restrict reproductive freedoms.  In the case of Whitner vs. South Carolina; the court found that the state’s statute includes a fetus within its definition of “child” and ruled that the “state was not violating Whitner’s Constitutional right of privacy by punishing her for endangering her child through an already illegal activity”. (Levine, 2010) To understand the justice of the court ruling in this case and other similar cases; I’ve included some images2 of babies with profound birth defects hoping that it may readily incline us to agree with such prosecutions of women who abuse drugs during pregnancy. There is no question that these infants are suffering for no good reason and that their mothers have done something horribly wrong in exposing their fetuses to harmful drugs. In this paper -as a health care administrator- I’ve tried to provide a summary of the relevant issues of mothers exposing their fetus to risk. But rational and compassionate discussion of the issue is so difficult. For example, if the issue of drug use trigger an emotional response, the issue of race or women's rights. As a result, there is “little room for meaningful exploration of what the medical risks of drug use during pregnancy really are and what might actually help pregnant women and drug exposed infants”. (Nash, 2000) To prevent the mix up between punishing women for endangering their unborn baby and keep their right of privacy; the government will have to engage in more active monitoring of pregnant women. Then again, we need to look on the other side of prosecuting women engaged in such cases. One obvious result of such measures would be that more and more women will stay away from healthcare providers, especially if they know they are pregnant, out of fear of what could happen. This could also encourage women to have unsafe, late-term abortions rather than risk the pregnancy coming to term.


As we can see, there are a number of moral problems with prosecuting women who exposes her fetus to risk. It may results in a number of consequences which can have the opposite effect intended - when women avoid doctors out of fear of jail, both they and their babies will be in greater danger from a wide range of medical problems. Women might lose the ability to trust their healthcare providers as doctors are forced to move from treatment to punishment as a solution to the problem. However, having a baby is a responsibility and a mother should be accountable for keeping her baby safe despite the fact that he is inside her womb or between her arms.


Drugs During Pregnancy

Levine, Carol (2010). Taking Sides; Clashing Views on Bioethical Issues. NY: McGraw-Hill
         Murphy, Sheilga (1998). Pregnant Women on Drugs.  NJ: Rutgers University Press.
      One hundred babies a month born with drug dependency  
      Pozgar, George (2007). Legal Aspects of Health Care Administration. ON : Jones & Bartlett Learning.
           State Responses to Substance Abuse Among Pregnant Women

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