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Help, Not Hostility, Is Needed

WHEN a 24-year-old woman in Massachusetts gave birth last year to a baby with drugs in its system, a grand jury indicted her on charges of distributing cocaine to a minor. Now, in a ruling that legal experts say could have nationwide implications, a judge has dismissed those charges, calling them a violation of the mother's privacy. ``There is no familiar bond more intimate and more fundamental than that between the mother and the fetus she carries in her womb,'' Plymouth County Superior Court Judge Suzanne DelVecchio wrote in her decision. ``This court will not permit the destruction of this relationship by the prosecution ....''

Justice DelVecchio's ruling comes as a welcome antidote to what appears to be growing hostility toward pregnant drug-users. During the past few years, more than 50 women across the country have been charged with fetal endangerment for exposing an unborn child to drugs or alcohol. Too often, the preferred solution to the problem appears to be: lock 'em up.

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Medical experts note that prenatal exposure to drugs can produce sad, sometimes tragic, consequences for babies, ranging from premature birth to physical and mental impairment. Yet punishing drug-abusing mothers by charging them with criminal negligence and sending them to prison solves nothing and creates additional problems.

Separating a woman from her baby and her other children runs the risk of further weakening what may already be a fragile family. The threat of criminal sanctions can also keep a drug user from seeking prenatal care, and in some cases can encourage her to terminate a pregnancy because she fears discovery.

These women need help, not retribution. But nationwide, few drug treatment centers accept pregnant clients. In one study in New York State, 54 percent of drug rehabilitation programs refused to treat pregnant women. Sixty-seven percent excluded Medicaid recipients, and 87 percent denied services to pregnant mothers on Medicaid who used crack.

Even women across the country who are accepted in a program might find their participation hampered by a lack of child care at the treatment center.

Beyond treatment for those already addicted, women and men alike need to be educated about the dangerous effects of drugs on unborn children. High-risk families need community programs that can offer support, counseling, and compassion. Poor women need access to maternal nutrition programs. And children born to parents found unable to be rehabilitated need secure foster care.

These services will cost taxpayers money. But the cost to families of not providing help is incalculable. Ensuring the birth of healthy, full-term, drug-free babies remains an urgent national priority. Commitment to that priority will make the womb a safer place and the family a stronger unit.

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