In 2012, approximately 21,000 newborns began their lives in an NICU, suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Their addictions were not their choice, but began in the womb with their mother’s addiction to substances legal or illegal. While nobody denies that we are facing an epidemic of addiction, and that pregnant women are passing additions onto their children, and that these children are facing a rough start, we cannot stigmatize these children or their mothers. In the 1980s, many of the same fears were used to stigmatize babies born to crack addicted mothers. The myth of the “crack baby” was based in a sample of just 23 infants, and the core symptoms of low birth weight and tremors are common in many prematurely born children – not just those born with their mother’s addiction.
In fact, children born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders face a rougher start and quantifiable long term problems. The stigmatized “crack babies” faced far more impediments from poverty-stricken communities where violence became endemic. In fact, women who are addicted to any substance are less likely to seek prenatal care because of the stigma associated with their addictions and the likelihood of being arrested. The judgmental mindset they perceive as being directed at them stops them at the clinic door when they and their babies most need medical professionals to help them. No woman wants to give birth in shackles, and it may be illegal, but these are “criminals” and very few people care what happens to them.
Drug addiction knows no race or class, but the criminal justice system has a grip on punishment and incarceration instead of treatment that can bring a mother out of addiction and into parenthood. Instead of stigmatizing these women, we need to reach out to them – and that means ending draconian laws that scare them away from medical help. Lately, whenever a politician wants to prove how moral they are, they introduce laws to test recipients of SNAP, evict not just criminals but people suspected (justly or not) of criminal activity from their homes, or in some other way beat people who have had more than a fair share of beating. That’s not right, not American, and not moral – and it’s time to get over the eighteenth century and into the twenty-first.
If we want a healthy society, we have to understand that beating down those already “fallen through the cracks” of society is not the way to do it. Grandstanding politicians have done everything to stoke resentment and fear, to divide us when we need to unite and support each other. Poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness should not be a life sentence for anyone born in this country. Stigma and shame do not incentivize, but alienate. To unite, we must extend that hand again and again, until it is taken in trust. The very smallest Americans are counting on us. We can’t let them down.