Researchers say that one drug-dependent baby is born in the United States every hour. These babies are the tiny victims of the nations growing opioid epidemic, born into the world suffering from painful drug withdrawals. Recent national statistics from the Journal of American Medical Association show that babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) tripled from 2000 to 2009, and has reportedly continued to increase since then.
“We need to do all we can to prevent this,” said Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of of Drug Control Policy about babies being born in agony.
Universal drug screening for pregnant women is being supported by the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, and the American Medical Association. The groups aim to stem the tide of the skyrocketing hospitalizations for babies with NAS. They call for a verbal screening at already established prenatal checkups. Urine tests would be administered, if warranted, by the health professional and agreed to by the patient.
Pregnant women are routinely checked for diseases like diabetes, HIV and hepatitis. Some say adding drug screenings to the list will help reduce the stigma of addiction and will keep women from being singled out by race, income or appearances.
Jessica Young, of Vanderbilt University and fellow with the obstetricians’ group, says that substance abuse screening is critically important in pregnancy. “Its a time for the physician to educate the patient and help them get into treatment, which can lead to better outcomes,” she exclaimed.
Legal ramifications in 18 states could deter the universal prenatal drug screening movement. Many states consider abusing substances during pregnancy to be child abuse under civil child welfare laws. Tennessee allows assault charges in certain cases. Universal prenatal drug screening supporters believe that punitive policies need to change so that women who abuse drugs during their pregnancies don’t start avoiding prenatal care all together to avoid prosecution. It should be a form of intervention used to create healthier mothers and babies.
So far Tennessee has been the first state to actually prosecute a mother for using drugs while pregnant, but that law is being contested by civil liberties groups.