For years now, I have been lecturing to university students and members of the public about the pregnancy police. Remember those so-called “crack babies” in the 80s and 90s? Well, guess what … They were, in point of fact, poverty babies paraded around by conservative ideologues out to blame every conceivable problem on drugs rather than social injustice. For two decades, the evidence has been out, and it is incontrovertible: a woman who smokes crack while pregnant, so long as she has access to decent food and medical care and a safe place to live, will produce a healthier child than a drug-free woman struggling with poverty and abuse.

People in the helping professions ought to consider, first, what prompts certain segments to misdirect the blame and, second, how this affects women – and children – who already have a rough go. The first consideration may invoke a critique of the entire War on Drugs mentality along with the policies it has entailed. The second consideration might involve damage control: troubled women with low self-esteem, troubled youngsters who need to get over many issues – including resentments towards parents – will only be harmed by a culture that demonizes marginalized moms.

The point is not that it is OK for women to get high while they are pregnant. The point is that – again and again – malicious politicos try (and try and try) to pin the products of mean-spirited economic and social policies on the very victims of these policies.

Now, the state of Tennessee is at it – turning itself into the first US state to criminalize drug use during pregnancy. While other states have used assorted federal laws to charge women who use drugs while pregnant, Tennessee is the first to go solo with a criminal law of its own.

This is a nasty and (if you care about people at all) infuriating development.

One difficulty is that the political smokescreens are hard to get around. Who in their right mind would want to defend the use of hard drugs by pregnant women?

So let us start slowly, and with the obvious: defending the behavior is not the issue. In fact, these (and other) self-destructive behaviors will increase when certain women (among the most excluded and vulnerable in society today) are treated like dirt. Yes, that’s correct: even the drug abusing behaviors will rise – not decline – in the wake of nasty, draconian measures.

You do not curtail drug abuse (or drunkenness) that way – never have, never will.

More to the point, perhaps: you do the fetus no good by forcing its unfortunate mom to go underground. Now, because she has to hide, the little embryo is likely to get even less medical care, less decent food and – yeah – witness more physical abuse (beatings and rape) than before. All of these things conspire to produce sick, underweight babies. The drug use, however undesirable, is a minor issue compared to the others just listed.

Oh, sure, drug use during pregnancy can be bad for the kid – though the worst culprit by far is alcohol, the one hard drug that rarely gets targeted by such legislation.

So the issue is not, and has never been, protecting the unborn. It is about waging a “war” on drugs (which of course is really a war on people) – the motives for which are varied and complex (though resentment and hatred are a part of the mix, as is a strange desire to bring back a wonderful past that never really existed).

The sad thing is: the evidence has been out for decades. Anyone who knows the situation (I mean experts) can tell you that.

The saddest thing is: people who initiate such laws are interested neither in evidence nor in reducing harm. They are just plain mad as heck, and they want to get tough.

You want tough? Try dealing for a couple of days with what some of these ladies have to deal with all year. It’ll toughen you up fast.

About the Author

Peter Ferentzy, Ph.D.

Peter Ferentzy, Ph.D., is a research scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

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