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Smoking during pregnancy - is it a form of child abuse?

Thomas Secrest's picture
Smoking; a form of child abuse. Image by Thomas Secrest

Sometimes it feels that, as humans, we have yet to fully come to terms with our responsibilities relative to reproduction. There are places where mothers give birth to human slaves that are meant to help with chores. In other places a newborn girl is of no value and can be tossed out with the daily trash, while a newborn boy is cause for fanfare and celebration. Racist parents tend to raise racist children, and while American society, at large, frowns on racism, there is no real desire to intervene in the rearing of a racist. The same goes for homophobes and their children and misogynists and their children. On the other hand, if child protective services think you’re feeding your child too much junk food, they can swoop in and pluck the child from your home, with nothing even approaching due process. It’s clear that when it comes to what’s best for children, there is a fierce tug-of-war taking place between individuals and the state; and the complete lack of public debate is not helping things.

As we learn more and more about the lasting impact of a mother’s prenatal lifestyle and personal choices on the future health, well-being and potential prosperity of their children, we are now faced with this tug-of-war being extended to include the 9 months of pregnancy and maybe to pregnancy itself.

Here is just one example, there are many, many more.

In a study published in the June 20, 2013 issue of JAMA Otolaryngology—Head & Neck Surgery, Dr. Michael Weitzman reported the “discovery that adolescents whose mothers had smoked during pregnancy had defects in both high-frequency and low-frequency hearing [indicating] that the developing auditory system is damaged by in utero exposure to tobacco smoke.”

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Because of the audiovisual orientation of our species with regard to learning and social integration, Dr. Weitzman went on to suggest that “these prenatal effects might also contribute to the lower language and reading scores seen in children of smokers.”

“Prospective studies with long-term follow-up at 12, 24, 36, and 48 months and at 9 and 12 years of age have demonstrated a dose-dependent relationship between prenatal smoke exposure and lower language and reading scores, particularly for auditory-related tasks.... Our association of hearing loss in adolescents with prenatal smoke exposure may explain, in part or completely, the findings of poor performance on auditory-related tasks," the authors conclude.

The latest data shows that about 12% of all pregnancies involve mothers that smoke. This is not an insignificant number and it is an average. As you might expect, smoking habits are not uniformly distributed across the population. Therefore, the potential negative impact of smoking is concentrated in poorer, less educated segments of society. These parts of society are already at a disadvantage and now the children born into this part of our society are also functionally disadvantaged from birth.

A woman’s prenatal lifestyle choices have been linked to conditions such as asthma, obesity, mental disorders, growth problems, behavioral problems and now hearing impairment.

Pregnancies are risky enough without tossing in a few landmines like, cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption. At the moment, our society is pretty much hands-off when it comes to who can get pregnant and reproduce. However, it is time to have that conversation about the obligation a pregnant woman has for the life she will deliver. Can a woman claim an inalienable right to smoke, drink and be pregnant all at the same time? And what of her offspring? In this socially complex, technically demanding world, what happens if your mother’s smoking and drinking cost you 10 IQ points or made it where you can’t hear or breath as well as you should.

It is something we don’t talk about, but to me, playing Russian roulette with a child’s entire future is just a bizarre form of child abuse. In a country where we demand more from a person wanting to drive a car than we do from a person who want to birth and raise a child, maybe it is time we have this discussion.