Friday, June 22, 2018
Opinion

Blumner: Moms who need help, not prison time

Have you heard of "Oxytots"? They are today's crack babies.

Headlines scream of the damage pregnant women with addictions to pain pills are causing. Like this last year from USA Today: "Number of painkiller-addicted newborns triples in 10 years." Or from the Wall Street Journal: "Pain Pills' Littlest Victims." Fox News used the moniker "Oxytots" for added color.

But ginning up hysteria distorts the real science behind this public health issue, which is far more textured.

Pain pills like Oxycontin and Vicodin are often legally prescribed and essential for women who suffer from chronic or acute pain. Women cannot simply stop taking them while pregnant.

Moreover, babies are not born "addicted" to drugs, though they may be "exposed" before birth. Words like this matter because when pregnant women are demonized in the media as having victimized their babies by addicting them, it changes the conversation. People who are labeled "drug pushers and perpetrators" get punished, not treated and helped.

I saw this firsthand when, as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida in 1989, Jennifer Johnson of Altamonte Springs became the first woman in the country to be convicted of "delivering" drugs to her newborns through the umbilical cord. Prosecutors used a statute intended for street-level drug dealers to charge Johnson, who had cocaine in her system when she gave birth to two of her children. Her conviction was eventually overturned, but it illustrates how far prosecutors will go to turn a woman with a drug problem into a child abuser.

This harsh approach was justified because "crack babies" were predicted — in one breathless media report after the next — to be severely damaged over their entire lives. Except that didn't happen. In 2009, the New York Times revisited the issue with a piece headlined, "The Epidemic That Wasn't."

Researchers who systematically followed children exposed to cocaine in the womb found no major long-term effects on brain development or behavior. They did see some small impacts, meaning that it isn't a good thing for a fetus to be exposed to cocaine. But the effects were less severe than those from alcohol and comparable to tobacco use, both legal products.

So, too, with prescription drug exposure in the womb. The research has found no long-term negative developmental outcomes. Babies, though, can sometimes develop a condition known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a diagnosable and readily treatable condition.

Recently, a group of more than 50 leading science and medical experts issued a plea to the media to stop "inaccurate and alarmist reporting" on the subject because it is harming the lives and health of women and their children.

Pregnant women trying to do the right thing and control their addiction with methadone or the newer buprenorphine maintenance treatment have been treated as child abusers by judges and child welfare workers, according to the experience of Dr. Robert Newman, director of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, and other experts who signed the open letter. The treatment is medically beneficial and recommended for pregnant women.

These nuances are lost because people who should know better continue sensationalizing misinformation.

Consider the poor judgment exhibited by Florida's surgeon general and secretary of health Dr. John Armstrong, who put out a press release last month saying, "One baby born addicted to drugs is too many."

Compare that to the report Armstrong issued in February as vice chairman of Florida's Statewide Task Force on Prescription Drug Abuse and Newborns, which responsibly warns that, to dispel harmful myths, "a baby should never be referred to as 'drug-addicted.' "

By scare-mongering in a press release, Armstrong suggested that every pregnant woman who tests positive for pain medicine — even if it is prescribed — be vilified as a child abuser.

Public officials and the media need to get their facts and tone right. Labels like "Oxytots" and "littlest victims" are way wide of the mark.

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