Thursday, February 10, 2005

On myths and meth use

Echidne reminds me of a story I read on a local news feed that I’ve been meaning to pass along. Basically, prosecutors in Bend, OR are trying to charge 3 women with forcing their babies to ingest methamphetamine – 2 in utero and one while nursing.

Now, while the breastfeeding situation concerns me from a pregnancy rights standpoint, it’s not nearly as alarming as the 2 cases of exposure via umbilical cord. The fact of the matter is, many children have died due to an overdose of meth they received via their mother’s breastmilk. An already born baby can be formula fed. Child Welfare services can intervene and remove that baby from the potentially harmful environment the mother is providing. She can be charged with child negligence. And perhaps most importantly – an already born baby clearly has full legal rights of personhood. None of which apply to the unborn fetus.

But unlike direct meth exposure via breastmilk, or dangers from neglect/ abuse from meth-addicted parents, the effects of in-utero exposure are still very much up in the air. Doctors who are trying to study the effects are facing serious obstacles from law enforcement and well-meaning legislators, who are trying to force them to report mothers who they know or suspect are users.

We have a tendency to get all riled up about behavior the mother does while pregnant that exposes her unborn child to potential toxic substances and wholly ignore the effect of other environmental hazards have on the baby - hazards that the mother has absolutely no control over. And we also tend to get more than a little overexcited about the potential danger of those toxins. Remember the whole “Crack Baby” epidemic of the 80’s that started this whole hyperawareness of what Mom’s doing with her body? Turns out, it didn’t happen. Or rather, it wasn’t anywhere as serious as the media made it out to be.

These folks, in fact point out that the use of labels like “Crack Baby”, “Ice Baby”, and “Meth Baby” are media spawned labels that have no basis in scientific research. They contend that the media’s continued use of these labels is not only counterproductive but dangerous, as it allows caretakers to starve and abuse children and then tack on the “crack baby” label and have it excused. Some journalism watchgroups are seeing the same level of hysteria used today to describe so called meth babies, and they’re quite concerned as well.

Now, meth might affect the fetus in utero more so than cocaine proved to do. But what we can learn from the crack baby myth is that a lot of the dangers confronting so-called ‘meth babies’ aren’t necessarily due to the drug itself. The living conditions of the mother – especially poverty and abuse - are likely a significant factor. You see a clue in one of the anecdotes of a meth addict who gave birth prematurely to twins mentioned on the above link: “The fact I was in a domestic violence relationship and getting beat worse during the pregnancy could have been part of it. Yeah, and then the drug use, they don’t know.”

Yet interestingly enough – the article doesn’t address probable consequences of physical abuse of the mother an unborn fetus at all. Even though it’s estimated that 1 in 5 women will be abused during pregnancy; and it’s known that homicide is now the leading cause of death among pregnant women. Even though it's known that the immediate effects on the pregnancy and fetus are: Blunt Trauma to the Abdomen, Hemorrhaging (including placental separation) , Uterine rupture, Miscarriage/Stillbirth, Preterm labor and Premature rupture of the membranes. Most of which also happen to be assumed symptoms of meth addiction.

That’s not to say that we as a society should not take steps to prevent maternal drug use. But I do worry about the hypocrisy and potential slippery slope aspect of the ways societies are attempting to do so. Don’t forget, it’s also illegal to provide alcohol or cigarettes to a minor. So by the logic of the Bend, OR D.A., a woman could be held criminally responsible for having even one glass of wine; or a cigarette during her pregnancy. So begins the slippery slope. We begin by prosecuting women for knowingly exposing their unborn children to controlled substances. Then we begin to prosecute them for exposing their unborn children to other known or even suspected pathogens. Like OTC or Rx drugs. Caffeine. Aspartame.

But – we still refuse to hold companies liable for exposing the born – let alone the unborn – to environmental toxins which are also known . Like mercury! And 2nd hand smoke! And we refuse to even document, let alone acknowledge the much higher dangers facing both mother and unborn child from domestic abuse. Therein lies the hypocrisy.

I was thinking about this story this weekend when Curt and I had a nice little dinner at a cheap Italian restaurant. Right as I walked in the door I saw the ubiquitous “Alcohol and Pregnancy don’t mix!” sign. Every time I see that little placard I am sorely tempted to order a glass of wine while lovingly patting my belly just because it pisses me off so much to have some restaurant manager telling me what's best for me and my baby. But I drift.

According to the U.S. CDC (who maintains the "no level of alcoholic consumption is safe" p.o.v.), the incidence rate of fetal alcohol syndrome is 0.2 - 1.5 per 1,000 live births. That's 0.02 - 0.15% folks. Less than one tenth of one percent. The FAS victim advocacy groups however call this an "epidemic" . Compare that to the 20% of pregnant women (and their babies) who are at risk of domestic abuse/ homicide. I’m sorry, but until those statistics reverse I’ll be much more worried about the partner of a woman who orders a glass of wine possibly going home and beating the crap out of her (and the fetus) than I’ll ever be concerned about her child contracting FAS from the occasional glass of alcohol. As these European folks point out – pregnant women have been drinking alcohol in moderation for millennia in other countries/societies with no hint of the “epidemic” of developmentally disabled kids the FAS hawks are so worried about.

What really kills me is the CDC's recommendation that any woman who drinks on occassion but who isn't on a reliable form of birth control should go on the wagon, "just in case". Their only recommendation to potential fathers is that they should "encourage" their partners to quit drinking and be supportive. Guess they haven't caught up on the latest studies, which show a father's consumption of alcohol and cigarettes and exposure to environmental toxins like drugs might very well have just as much of an affect on fetal survival and development rates as maternal exposure to those substances. Perhaps more so - since sperm cells are continuously made throughout a man's life, they are at more risk of mutation than a woman's eggs, which are all formed before she's born.

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