It's no secret that the U.S. is experiencing an opioid addiction epidemic. Among those who have fallen victim to this devastating cycle are pregnant women — who, if left untreated, can have babies born addicted to and experiencing withdrawal from drugs. Regardless of your political affiliation, we can probably all agree that drug-dependent mothers and babies are not good for society. What politicians can't seem to agree on, though, is how to approach the problem from a legislative standpoint. Through the years, states have tested out different strategies in hopes to tackle the problem head-on. Most recently, Missouri sponsored a bill to jail pregnant women who use drugs — and honestly, it will only do more harm.
But before we get to that, here's a startling statistic: A baby suffering from opioid withdrawal is born every 25 minutes in the U.S., Mothering reported. And according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC,) the number of babies who were born experiencing opioid withdrawal tripled from 1999 to 2013. (Yeah, not good). Here's how it happens: When a pregnant woman takes drugs — like methadone, heroin, OxyContin, and codeine — the substances actually pass through the placenta and result in the fetus becoming addicted, too. Oftentimes, the baby then goes on to develop neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) after birth, when the flow of drugs suddenly stops. According to the March of Dimes, symptoms of NAS include body shakes and seizures, excessive crying, a high-pitched cry, feeding problems, breathing problems, trouble sleeping, and more.
In an attempt to fight against this growing opioid epidemic in pregnant women, Missouri lawmakers have come up with a controversial solution. Rep. Jered Taylor is sponsoring a bill — called House Bill 1875 — that would potentially make it a felony for pregnant women to take narcotics or controlled substances without a prescription, Mothering reported. According to the Springfield News-Leader, using drugs while pregnant would initially be a misdemeanor; however, if the child ended up dying because of the mother's drug use, it could be a felony charge. Taylor explained that the bill would allow convicted women to avoid prison time if they complete a drug court treatment program. "I think it's a big issue and it's only increasing," Taylor told the Springfield News-Leader. "Something needs to be done to make sure we have healthy babies and get these women the help they need."
As well-meaning as tackling the opioid epidemic is, this tactic is incredibly misguided. Because here's the thing: As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, studies have shown that the majority of women become addicted to opioids while under medical care. What's more, fewer than 30 percent of babies who are born with neonatal abstinence syndrome were a result of women using illicit drugs. Logically, this puts a good portion of the blame on the fact that doctors are over-prescribing opioids. So maybe, just maybe, it's the medical community and pharmaceutical companies that need more attention from legislators who are looking to get to the root of the problem.
Threatening to jail pregnant women who are addicted to opioids can also have unintended consequences, as Dr. Patricia Dix — who has been caring for women with high-risk pregnancies for roughly 28 years — points out. "Bad idea," Dix told the Springfield News-Leader. "It's another example of our legislature trying to practice medicine, which they know nothing about." Legislation like House Bill 1875 will likely result in addicted women not seeking prenatal care because of the very real threat of criminal charges, Dix explained:
I don't care who you are, that is never good. Whether you are using drugs or not, no prenatal care is dangerous for both the mother and the baby.
Need further proof that threatening to jail women for opioid use during pregnancy puts both mothers and babies at further risk? As Mothering reported, the state of Tennessee had actually passed similar legislation — which is now set to expire. The reason? Surprise, surprise! Addicted pregnant women started avoiding prenatal care, resulting in their babies being born at an even greater risk.
Treatment-based programs without the threat of jail time could be a better alternative — something similar to the PATHways (Perinatal Assistance and Treatment Home) program in Lexington, Kentucky. Addicted women in the PATHways program are treated by a team of doctors and counselors during their pregnancies, according to Vice. A doctor prescribes medication that reduces the risk of relapse (and is safer for mom and baby than illicit opioids.) So far, there have been zero fatal overdoses of women at PATHways. And although medication-assisted treatment doesn't completely eliminate the risk of babies developing NAS, it does reduce the odds.
What addicted pregnant women need is help — not the threat of imprisonment. So maybe — as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board suggested — Rep. Jered Taylor should instead focus his efforts on getting Missouri to expand its treatment programs for drug addict — with a focus on programs that can accommodate women and babies. That would certainly be a step in the right direction.