Pregnant Heroin Addicts: What’s the Solution?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Over the last decade, 5,100 babies were born addicted to opiates and hospitalized for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). That number continues to rise at an alarming rate.

In 2011 alone, hospitals treated 1,649 addicted newborns, equivalent to around five admissions per day. Ever climbing NAS numbers have forced several states to take action. The problem, however, is that state officials each seem to have very different ideas about tackling this addiction issue.

A great case in point is Tennessee and Ohio.

The Tennessee Solution

Like most states, Tennessee has seen its share of addicted mothers birthing addicted babies. The widespread abuse of prescription painkillers and heroin has fueled a tenfold increase in NAS births since 2004. In fact, more than 850 newborns were born dependent on drugs last year in Tennessee.

The law allows prosecutors to charge women with assault if they believe they can prove drug use during pregnancy harmed newborns.Despite a rising number of officials acknowledging addiction treatment is more beneficial than prison, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a law that will criminally prosecute pregnant women abusing drugs. The law allows prosecutors to charge women with assault if they believe they can prove drug use during pregnancy harmed newborns. Women could potentially ward off prosecution by entering a costly court-supervised treatment program.

Adverse Affects for the Family

Tennessee’s bill has been strongly criticized by multiple organizations. In 2013, The Safe Harbor Act took effect, granting pregnant women priority access to addiction treatment and protecting their custody rights as long as they received help. This newly signed bill seemingly takes that option off the table.

The most pressing concern is that pregnant addicts will retreat into the shadows. If physicians are allowed to report these women on suspicion, most will be too frightened to obtain the proper prenatal care. Without adequate care, babies are often born with developmental issues or physical deformities. What’s more, hundreds of families could be forced to split up; only two of Tennessee’s 177 addiction treatment facilities provide on-site prenatal care and allow older children to stay with their mothers.

Ohio Puts Treatment First

A disturbing increase in the number of NAS cases prompted Ohio officials to come up with a new recovery-centered plan. The state saw 88 addicted newborns per 10,000 live births in 2011 – more than six times its 2004 rate. In response, the state will hand out approximately $4.2 million in grant money to fund a three-year pilot program that provides treatment to pregnant women addicted to heroin or other opioid drugs.

[Ohio] will hand out approximately $4.2 million in grant money to fund a three-year pilot program that provides treatment to pregnant women addicted to heroin or other opioid drugs.

Ohio’s program is expected to serve 300 women in Cuyahoga, Athens, Franklin, and Hamilton counties. Participants will receive:

  • Drug treatment and in-depth counseling to protect unborn children from NAS
  • Medication-assisted treatment for opiate addiction
  • Relapse prevention after the babies are born
  • Transportation or babysitting assistance for medical and treatment appointments
  • Vouchers for transitional housing

Treatment vs. Prison

Most experts agree that the US prison system is simply not equipped to treat addiction. In fact, only 11 percent of inmates with substance abuse and addiction disorders ever receive treatment during incarceration. Prisoners are virtually destined to relapse once released. Heeding that warning, Ohio hopes to provide pregnant addicts with much more than just an opportunity to give birth sober; the state also hopes to see these women break the cycle of addiction and maintain sobriety for a lifetime.


Help is Here: If you or someone you know is struggling with opiate abuse, take action and find opiate addiction treatment centers in your area.

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