New Debate Over Addicted Mothers and Their Babies

By Rachel Walden — April 13, 2011

This week, the New York Times ran a piece focused on the babies of women addicted to prescription painkillers. The focus of the narrative – almost exclusively on the babies, with a lack of real interrogation of or accountability for how the system currently fails and demonizes addicted pregnant women – should be familiar to anyone who witnessed media coverage of the “crack baby” in the 1980s.*

In fact, the writer explicitly draws this parallel by stating, “Like the cocaine-exposed babies of the 1980s, those born dependent on prescription opiates — narcotics that contain opium or its derivatives — are entering a world in which little is known about the long-term effects on their development.”

The same paper ran a piece in December 2009, “The Epidemic that Wasn’t,” which notes that popular fears about the outcomes for those babies – expressed in headlines such as “Crack’s Toll Among Babies: A Joyless View” and “Studies: Future Bleak for Crack Babies” – have failed to materialize, while “‘Society’s expectations of the children and reaction to the mothers are completely guided not by the toxicity, but by the social meaning’ of the drug.”

This is not to say it’s not natural or important to be concerned about the babies of addicted mothers, but it’s important to remember the ways in which race, class, power, and stigma impact our consideration of these women and their babies. This is illustrated in a quote from one doctor interviewed for the current piece; he treats pregnant women with addictions, and apparently asked himself initially, “Gosh, what am I doing? Am I really helping these people?” (emphasis mine).

What gets little attention in the article – except for a note that some doctors and hospitals won’t deliver the babies of some women treated with buprenorphine for their addictions – is that it can be extremely difficult for pregnant women to obtain treatment for drug addiction. Many treatment centers will not accept pregnant women, yet women whose babies test positive for drugs may face criminal charges. Yet, the stories and experiences of pregnant women addicted to drugs, and their inability to obtain treatment, barely figure into the NY Times article.

Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women has an excellent commentary exploring these and related issues at RHRealityCheck, where she concludes:

Perhaps then the real ethical quandary that should be addressed is why stories like these suggest that the greatest threat to children is their mothers – rather than the lack of universal health care, the economic policies undermining our communities, and the unethical doctors who turn away pregnant women seeking medical help.

*For more on that topic, including the racist overtones and media mythmaking, see Dorothy Roberts’s “Killing the Black Body.” Also see this editorial and this scientific article.

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