Should we protect pregnant women from themselves?


Jul 25, 2005


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The Bottom Line The care and feeding of pregnant women is a delicate issue.

I first read the sad saga of Melissa Tanner ten days ago. The Oklahoma mother of seven was arrested for giving birth to a drunk baby girl on June 30. Tanner, who is a connoisseur of Milwaukee's Best beer and regularly consumed a case of it per week during her pregnancy, had a blood alcohol level of nearly four times Oklahoma's limit of .08. Her baby had a blood alcohol level of .21. After Tanner drunkenly gave birth to her intoxicated baby, she was arrested on charges of child abuse and neglect. Melissa Tanner was evidently unaware that she was pregnant, or at least that's what she told a nurse before she had her baby. When a friend asked Tanner what she planned to name the baby, Tanner suggested the name "Milwaukee's Best" (taken from The Smoking Gun-- http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0715051tanner1.html).

My initial reaction after I read about Melissa Tanner was disgust and horror. I felt sorry for her baby, who will almost certainly suffer from the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). No one knows how badly she will be affected by FAS until she's older. I also felt badly for her other children, who must also deal with the consequences of their mother's addiction. And then, when I thought about the issue some more, I realized that Melissa Tanner was thrown into jail for something that she did to herself while she was pregnant... something that would have been completely legal had she not been pregnant. She drank alcohol.

Make no mistake about my position on this. I do not advocate drinking alcohol during pregnancy. I think that women who intend to give birth should do whatever they can to ensure that they have a healthy baby. But when I did some checking into the federal and state laws regarding drug use and pregnancy (http://www.drugpolicy.org/library/gov_responses_overview_p1.cfm), I found that state laws run the gamut from requiring health professionals to counsel their patients about the use of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy, to allowing pregnant women who use drugs and alcohol to be involuntarily committed to treatment facilities, to not having any statutes regarding pregnancy and alcohol use at all. Had Melissa Tanner given birth in Alabama, for instance, she might not have wound up in jail at all for giving birth to a drunk baby. Had she been pregnant in South Dakota, she might have been committed to a hospital and forced into treatment for her addiction to alcohol.

Based on what I've read about Melissa Tanner, I don't think she has any business raising children. But I have to admit that I was a little disturbed that Melissa Tanner was put in jail on child abuse and neglect charges-- not because I don't think what she did was wrong, but because it occurs to me that in our country, we're starting to give rights to the unborn that supersede those of people who have already been born. And it also occurs to me that as long as we continue to allow abortion in this country, any laws that grant rights to the unborn are hypocritical.

Had Melissa Tanner wanted to, she could have legally gotten an abortion. In some peoples' minds abortion is murder, but in the United States, it's still a legal course of action. Instead of having an abortion, though, Melissa Tanner drank a case of "Beast" per week and gave birth to a child that is likely to suffer from the effects of FAS the rest of her life. It's not lost on me that Melissa Tanner was very irresponsible during the pregnancy that she claimed to know nothing about until right before she gave birth. Moreover, since she evidently didn't know she was pregnant, I can only assume that Melissa Tanner also never received proper pre-natal care. If Melissa Tanner never had any pre-natal care, no one had the opportunity to counsel her or test her for drugs or alcohol-- not that this would have necessarily done any good, but at least the state could have claimed to have tried.

As far as I know, pregnant women are not required to seek a doctor's care. Since we have over 43 million people in this country who lack health insurance and don't qualify for public aid, I can only surmise that there are plenty of women in the United States who don't get the medical care they need while they're pregnant. Melissa Tanner gave birth in a hospital, but she didn't have to; in fact, she reportedly came to the hospital because she fell off her porch, not because she realized she was about to have a baby. She could have stayed home and given birth.

I've discussed this issue with other people, mostly online. The reactions I've gotten from other people have varied widely. Some people think that Melissa Tanner should go to prison for what she did. Other people think that we need more laws that would force pregnant women to take care of themselves properly. Still some other folks think that the government has no business dictating to women what they can and can't do because they happen to be pregnant.

My feeling is that as long as pregnant women are allowed to walk around freely, laws that dictate how they should take care of themselves while they are pregnant are going to be very hard to enforce, especially since not every pregnant woman has access to medical care. I don't think that what Melissa Tanner did was right, but I also don't think that more laws are the answer. For one thing, Melissa Tanner is clearly not a well woman. Yes, she should have sought treatment for her alcoholism, but for some reason she didn't. I don't know what her reasons were for not seeking help, but the end result is that she's still an active alcoholic and she has at least one child who was affected by the fact that she drank while she was pregnant. Should she have been forced into treatment because she was pregnant? I don't know... we don't, as a general rule, force alcoholics into treatment unless they've broken the law. And whether or not drinking while pregnant is really against the law is a muddy issue. In some states, children who are born with alcohol in their systems can be put into foster care... but is it truly against the law for pregnant women to drink and is that an enforceable law?

In North Carolina, it's against the law for anyone to serve or sell alcohol to a pregnant woman. Ignorance of a woman's pregnancy is not an excuse (http://www.drugpolicy.org/library/gov_responses_overview_p1.cfm). But how can retailers and servers know for certain if someone is pregnant? In New Mexico, those who are in the business of selling or serving alcohol must attend a training that addresses the risks of fetal alcohol syndrome. I think it's great that restaurant personnel must learn about the risks of drinking during pregnancy, but once they are armed with that information, what are they supposed to do? If they spot a potentially pregnant woman in their restaurant ordering a beer, are they supposed to lecture their customer about the evils of drinking while pregnant? Refuse to make a sale? What if the woman just looks pregnant? What if the woman just decides to drink in the privacy of her own home? And does the prospect of being prosecuted for drinking or using drugs while pregnant deter some women from seeking medical care?

I'm really torn on this issue. Of course I don't like to see women who are pregnant getting drunk. Of course I think that pregnant women should do what they can to ensure that they have healthy babies. But I also think that we have a lot more responsible women in our country than women like Melissa Tanner. And as long as we can't guarantee that women will have free access and transportation to excellent medical care, I don't understand how we can force them to take care of themselves while they're pregnant. I don't like the notion that unborn children's rights should always supersede those of their mother's... especially when the mother still has the right to choose to have an abortion.

What's clear to me, though, is that Melissa Tanner needed help that she didn't get. And now she and her children and our society are paying the price.

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