Prenatal Drug Exposure
The use of illicit drugs and alcohol is prevalent in our society today and the effects on crime, domestic violence and traffic injuries are well documented. Recently, scientists have begun to examine, in depth, the effects of drugs and alcohol on fetal development. Experts estimate that one half to three quarters of a million infants are born each year that have been exposed to drugs in utero. When figures for alcohol and tobacco are added, the number exceeds one million infants. Protection for the unborn infant has recently taken the form of state statutes that prohibit fetal abuse; thus, since the 1980’s, a trend towards prosecution of the mother of the fetus has gained momentum and is currently being debated across America.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse is investing heavily in studies to continue the investigation of long reaching effects of prenatal drug exposure. Preliminary studies show that children who were exposed in utero show significant behavioral and learning difficulties in later years. Long-term studies are beginning to indicate that prenatally exposed children may have subtle but significant impairments in ability to regulate emotions and focus or sustain attention. Neurobehavioral deficits place these children on a developmental path to poor school performance and consequences that alter their career choices.
When looking at justification for criminal punishment of pregnant women who abuse drugs and alcohol, one needs only to look towards the harrowing statistics on alcohol alone. Risk factors for prenatal alcohol consumption include spontaneous abortion and stillbirth, premature delivery, and reduced birth size and weight. The first indicators that alcohol consumption has interfered with fetal development in the womb, aside from premature and underdeveloped babies, include repetitive patterns of central nervous system involvement and facial structure abnormalities. Further investigation revealed patterns of cardiovascular problems, cardiac murmurs, kidney trouble, respiratory dysfunction, hernias, shortened fingers and a profusion of facial hair, all prevalent in diagnosed cases of FAS. Later studies, as the babies grew, revealed significant cognitive impairment and lower IQ scores. Children born to mothers who consumed alcohol during pregnancy may exhibit symptoms such as alcohol-related physical features, growth retardation and cognitive dysfunction even though they do not meet all the diagnostic criteria for FAS. Researchers have shown that even the consumption of two alcoholic drinks per day by a pregnant woman could be associated with a seven point decrease in IQ at age seven .