Fetal alcohol crisis demands adequate
Tuesday, December 9, 2003
The Nov. 24 Citizen editorial, "Child abuse often begins before birth," referred to the consumption of alcohol or drugs during pregnancy as "child abuse."
Dr. Sterling Clarren, one of this country's leading experts on birth mothers of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) has conducted research that shows there are very few pregnant women with substance abuse problems who intentionally inflict harm on their unborn children.
The Citizen wrote that we "must stop" pregnant women from using drugs and alcohol. Alcohol is a drug, and alcohol causes more damage to the developing baby's brain than any other drug, so perhaps we should say "alcohol and other drugs."
Before we can stop the pregnant woman with a substance abuse problem, we need to understand why she is drinking or using in the first place. Dr. Clarren's research and other studies reveal the following bits of information:
· Ninety percent of mothers of babies with fetal alcohol syndrome suffer from depression.
· Most of these mothers were victims of sexual abuse.
· Almost all of the birth mothers were victims of severe physical abuse.
· About half were alcohol-affected themselves. This means they suffered brain damage that results in poor judgment, lack of problem-solving skills, poor impulse control, and vulnerability to abuse.
· Twenty-three percent of women drink in the first trimester, before they know they are pregnant.
· Thirty years after FAS was identified as a birth defect, many doctors are still telling their pregnant patients that one or two drinks a day will not hurt. March of Dimes says no amount of alcohol is safe.
· Only 17 percent of medical texts used in medical schools have consistently accurate information about the dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy.
· Half of all women of childbearing age drink, and half of all pregnancies are unplanned. When you serve alcohol to a woman who is sexually active, considering the high failure rate of popular birth control methods, there is a significant risk that you might be contributing to brain damage in a developing baby nobody even realizes exists.
· Of the mothers of babies with FAS, 100 percent had alcoholism, an addiction for which we do not often provide adequate or appropriate treatment. Effective treatment includes inpatient supervision for mother and her children, with long-term support follow-up afterwards.
If we hold women accountable for drinking during pregnancy, and hold them accountable for an addiction over which they may have little control, shall we hold accountable those who encourage her to drink, including her doctor, friends, partner?
If we are going to blame women who have neurological dysfunction, health problems, and mental health disorders over which they have little control, shall we not also blame the medical professionals who should know better and the legislators who refuse to appropriate adequate funding for treatment and prevention?
As a new member of the Pima Council on Child Abuse Prevention, I have urged those on the newly formed FAS Committee to not refer to FAS as "child abuse in the womb" because birth mothers already carry a heavy burden of guilt for their children's disorders, and not one of them says they intended to harm their child.
If we are to rely on court-ordered treatment, it has to be provided as a means of supporting the mother in a healthy pregnancy, not in a self-righteous infliction of punishment on someone who is vulnerable and desperate for help.
The Nov. 24 guest editorial by David Berns - "Protecting children is state's goal" - was more objective and based on research data. Publishing Berns' opinion was a wise decision.
If we are truly committed to protecting Arizona's children, we must be willing to fund effective treatment programs for pregnant women and prevention programs that raises awareness about FASD in Arizona.
Teresa Kellerman is director of the FAS Community Resource Center.
FAS Community Resource Center