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April 12, 2011

Response to NYT: Newly Born and Stigmatized

Lynn Paltrow responds to Saturday's NYT story on newborns withdrawing from drugs. Newly Born, and Withdrawing from Pain Killers relies on anecdotes and innuendo to focus attention on pregnant drug users rather than actual facts, lessons learned, or the real economic and ethical issues that need to be addressed.

According to the story, “Like the cocaine-exposed babies of the 1980’s, those born dependant on prescription opiates – narcotic that contain opium or its derivatives- are entering a world in which little is known about the long term effects on their development.” Rather than report on all that has been learned since the 1980’s – that the alarm about prenatal exposure to cocaine was never justified and that the predicted massive harms never materialized, this story suggests that when “little is known” we can, in the meantime, blame mom and expect the worst.

The story admits that there “are no national figures that document the extent of the problem” but based on interviews the story portrays a problem that “has grown rapidly.” The story offers no actual data to indicate that pregnant women’s drug use has increased from the 3-5% found in national surveys, or that it comes close to the numerous other factors that are far more common (10-20%) and that carry greater risks including, obesity, inadequate prenatal care, cigarettes smoking and especially poverty.

Perhaps the real ethical quandary that should be addressed is why stories like these suggest that the greatest threat to children are pregnant women rather than the lack of universal health care, economic policies that force young mothers like the one in the story to commute two hours from home to work the overnight shift, and unethical doctors who turn away pregnant women seeking medical help.

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