One need not travel far to land smack-dab in the Dark Ages of archaic attitudes and reckless public policy on the rising plight of pregnant women addicted to heroin and other destructive opiates.
Just take a straight shot down Interstate-71 into Tennessee where a new law effective July 1 will make it a crime — with up to 15 years of prison time — for women addicted to heroin and other opiates to give birth to a child with traces of the drug in his or her system.
Bill Haslam, governor of the Volunteer State, recently signed legislation into law that calls for criminal prosecution of drug-dependent pregnant women if their child “is born addicted, is harmed or dies because of the drug.” That means prosecutors can charge women with “assaultive offense or homicide” if their child is affected by his or her mother’s drug use.
In so doing, Tennessee has singled itself out as the only state in the union where pregnancy and criminality can be synonymous.
Fortunately, Ohio is light years ahead of such backwater attitudes and mean-spirited public policy. The proof is in a new and promising $4 million pilot program launched this spring by the Ohio Department of Health that uses compassion — not imprisonment — to combat the explosive crisis of heroin abuse and its potentially deleterious effects on newborns.
To be sure, however, women who consciously continue to abuse heroin and other opiates during a pregnancy deserve little respect. But neither do they deserve jailbird status that could make some fear medical treatment and lead others to turn to abortion.
The $4.2 million, three-year pilot project in Ohio takes a wiser, more proactive and strategic course through early identification, counseling and treatment. It. is expected to help about 300 women addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin in the four counties where it is based — Cuyahoga, Athens, Franklin and Hamilton.
Women in the project will undergo a combination of counseling and medication-assisted treatment for their addiction, along with help to prevent relapses after their babies are born. Some program funding will cover vouchers for housing, transportation and baby-sitting services during their treatment.
THE HEAVY TOLL
In the name of reducing the high rate of heroin abuse among pregnant women, this promising program deserves a chance to work. Ohio has seen a meteoric increase in the number of drug addicted babies, increasing from 14 per 10,000 live births in 2004 to 88 per 10,000 live births in 2011. All indicators point to even higher rates today.
The toll drug addiction takes on pregnant women is heavy indeed. Babies born to mothers high on heroin can experience withdrawal symptoms, respiratory complications, low birth weight, feeding difficulties and seizures. They can spend days or weeks in neonatal intensive-care units.
In fact, such treatment accounted for 19,000 days in Ohio’s hospitals in 2011 and more than $70 million in health care expenses, according to the Ohio Hospital Association.
Given such high costs, the state’s pilot program for pregnant women represents another timely and productive weapon in the state’s growing arsenal to lessen the scope of our out-of-control heroin plague. We’re confident the thoughtful and compassionate pilot will succeed and then fan out to all reaches of the state, including the Mahoning Valley. After all, no price tag can be placed on lessening or preventing the drug-induced torture sadly endured by thousands of Ohio women and children.