Few issues are more ethically and legally complex than the ties between substance-addicted mothers and their children.
Consider the case of Martina Graywind, a pregnant mother of six who is also homeless and addicted to sniffing paint fumes. Paint sniffing earned Graywind some 12 arrests on the streets of North Dakota during the past year. After she got pregnant, state prosecutors added reckless endangerment of a fetus to the charges.
Now everyone wants to claim Graywind as a symbol. A religious group has offered to pay her $10,000 to give birth. An anonymous donor is ready to pay for her abortion. Some say the charge of fetal abuse is pushing Graywind to end the pregnancy, thereby vitiating the state's claim against her. Others say this destitute woman has been offered a beggar's choice: $10,000 or her constitutionally protected right to choose abortion. North Dakota prosecutors aren't saying what would happen to their fetal abuse case if the pregnancy is terminated.
One way or another, most Americans would like to believe that every problem has a legal solution. People with serious addictions cannot be coerced into being good mothers and good citizens, though. The threat of losing her six children won't change Martina Graywind; the state has already taken her kids away. The threat of jail is no disincentive, either; nine hours after she was bailed out by an anti-abortion group, the Lambs of Christ, Graywind was again charged with sniffing paint fumes and jailed.
Some jurisdictions have pressed their legal hopes to the limit by trying to make examples of addicted mothers. It is a tragedy that babies are born with cocaine dependencies or fetal alcohol syndrome, but charging their mothers with abuse is not the answer. Constitutional issues aside, this strategy's only result has been to drive fearful women away from prenatal care. Who knows how many women who might otherwise respond to education and drug treatment are being scared away? Who knows how many babies are born outside safe medical settings because their mothers fear exposure as addicts? Why cut down on the medical community's options for positive intervention instead of boosting their ability to help at-risk women prevent unwanted pregnancies and carry healthy babies to term?
The case of Martina Graywind is about addiction, poverty and learned helplessness, not about a woman's right to choose or society's right to choose for her. Not surprisingly, both sides in this fight claim Graywind agrees with them. Perhaps she does; this 28-year-old's unhappy history would suggest impaired capacity for rational thinking. Indeed, after her most recent arrest, state officials transferred Graywind to a psychiatric hospital. Advocates of all persuasions should hope she finds the necessary guidance there.
In the past, when addicted mothers were less common and less visible, relatives often quietly took over the duties of child-rearing. Society's role was largely confined to remedial, last-resort action, as when a grossly neglected child was removed from a dangerous home. Today, addiction is rampant and family resources are stretched to the limit. There are times when society has no choice but to be involved. Wise policy-makers understand that lawbooks, prayer books and even the U.S. Constitution won't yield easy answers.