Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Moral question of the week: drugs during pregnancy

Having witnessed this myself a couple of days ago...

Should it be a criminal offence for a pregnant woman (assume she knows she is pregnant or should reasonably know she is pregnant and isn't insane) to smoke, take narcotics or alcohol?

FOR: Pregnancy is preventable. Once it occurs, termination on demand is legal up to a certain gestation period. Beyond that it is a fair assumption that the choice has been made to be a parent or to carry the foetus to term to give up for adoption. In such circumstances, reasonable care would be expected of the mother (and both parents after birth) to provide the necessary care and material needs for the child. Emphasis being reasonable. A mother ingesting any toxic substance effectively supplies that substance to the foetus. The dangers of foetal alcohol syndrome are well established and known, as are the dangers of substantial damage to the foetus from smoking or ingestion of hallucinogenics. The foetus is unable to consent to such consumption, and is at its most vulnerable state of growth during gestation. It is, in effect, little different from injecting the child directly. The rights of the child are held in trust by the parents, who are expected to take reasonable steps to protect those rights. Ingesting toxic substances deliberately during gestation does not do this, and is deliberately damaging and harmful to the child. It is an initiation of force.

AGAINST: The mother's body comes ahead of the foetus. With abortion rights, the foetus always comes second to the mother, this includes the mother having the right to ingest whatever she chooses. Risk such a law could be extended to diet, to anorexia, to prohibiting giving children alcohol to taste as they grow up. Many survive unaffected by maternal ingestion of alcohol, drugs or tobacco.

Expected positions?
Feminists: Women first, foetus has no rights.
Conservatives: Yes, prosecute the mother, foetus has more rights than mother.
Marxists: Don't prosecute the mother, she's probably poor, had bad education and doesn't know better.

Criminalising it means the foetus has rights (protected by the state) that can override the mother, the question is when do these rights appear? Not criminalising it means the foetus has no rights at all, and abortion on demand up to birth can surely be legal?

I lean towards criminalisation, admitting there are difficulties, but quite simply deliberate ingestion of drugs during pregnancy is a reckless disregard for the health of a baby that a mother intends to give birth to.



Lindsay Mitchell said...

Mothers who knowingly hurt their child in the womb are very poorly motivated. Address the reasons why they are such pooorly motivated mothers-to-be, why they are so casually carrying a child.

Criminalise and what penalties? More unpaid fines, clogged up courts, crowded prisons?

Lindsay Mitchell said...

And of course if you are going to scrutinise the mother, a similar question could be asked of the father. Should he be criminalised for drinking, smoking and drug- taking thus producing poor quality sperm and/or allowing the mother of his child to damage the child during pregnancy? Crime of omission or neglect?

Opinionated Libertarimum said...

What a mired question! My personal instant response when I witness pregnant women engage in activities that have the potential to damage their foetus is anger and disdain, and I tend to also pass judgement on the suitability of the woman to be a mother if she is already showing disregard for the health of her child when it isn't even out of womb yet.

However, there are medical studies that show that more damage than harm can be caused by a woman going "cold turkey" immediately after getting pregnant - will have to check on the link, but I believe it has something to do with the body going into shock when a substance is immediately withdrawn from the system. I understand that medical advice these days does condone reduced ingestion of the substance in the interests of protecting the mother and foetus.

And, in reality, the damage to any current or future foetus has probably already been done. The healthy development of a foetus starts well before a woman conceives.

So without knowing the full story, I know I shouldn't pass judgement. But, of course, I do.

The response, of course, is probably something equally fraught, along the lines of "ban all substances that can potentially cause harm". Don't go there! Or educate people when they are at young and impressionable age? No answer - I just share your disgust.

Unknown said...

I don't think it's a question of prosecution. That's for starters. It should not be.

Whether one ought to disapprove of it - take a moral stand against imbibing - I think it depends on the drug and the frequency.

A glass of wine ? I don't see the harm? A bottle of wine every night on the other hand seems too much.

If the woman was smoking before - it could be more harmful to suddenly quit.

I do think it's like the choice to have a child - up to the mother and how she conducts herself during the pregnancy is something she should decide.

justinraine said...

It's a difficult question.

If the mother's rights trump up to a date for viability (at which point abortion might cease to be an option) then early drug use etc should be permissible. However, it is in the early stages that the most damage will be done to the featus. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (IIRC) is caused by alcohol use in the first trimester. Wouldn't the consequence therefore be that the mother is unimpeachable, but the eventuating child is damaged (and therefore representing a 'cost' to someone - either the mother, the family or society as a whole).

Flipping it around, if you prevent a mother ingesting during the fragile first trimester, you are essentially giving rights to a non-person at the expense of a person, which seems undesirable.

Do we criminalise something on the basis that the ingesting mother, being too stupid to avoid teratogens, is therefore unlikely to bear the burden of her choices and therefore others/society as a whole will have those problems thrust upon them and because of that society is entitled to prevent the harm occuring (as best it can)?

Or do we stick to a rigid rights-based approach and say that the mother is entitled to ingest what she wants and the most society can do is expect her to reap the consequences (whatever they may be and whatever her ability to cope may be)?

Strangely, I think the more 'collectivist' approach is the more reasonable one in this case, but tough cases make bad law.

Libertyscott said...

Hmmm, I'm starting to wonder if a better approach would be to allow the child to sue the parent. Of course, that may be completely futile if she owns next to nothing.

justinraine said...

The problem is one of 'prior restraint'. Is it right to stop someone doing something simply because we all know damn well it will end badly?

Alcohol harmful effects said...

Alcohol itself is very harmful even for a normal person, then people just don't understand and continue drinking. Once in a while is fine for normal person, but for a pregnant women it is not recommended at all. Drinking alcohol could lead to birth flaws, some physical or mental disorders to foetus.