03/17/2008 03:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Pregnant Women, Drugs and the New York Times : Think of the Children!

But think of the children! This fear-inducing, often brain-numbing perspective has been used to foist all kinds of "common sense" policies on Americans that sound good from the mouths of politicians and activists -- but result in more harm than they prevent.

Take this story from the New York Times on Saturday. It examined a prosecutor in Alabama who thinks he's protecting babies from drugs by incarcerating their mothers for testing positive for drug use during pregnancy. While it mentions court cases in other states that have stopped similar prosecutions, it doesn't explain why.

There are several reasons that this strategy fails: the first is that punishing pregnant drug users for harming their fetuses tends not to stop their drug use, but rather to drive them underground and away from both prenatal care and addiction treatment. Admissions to one rehab by pregnant women, for example, dropped 80%, after South Carolina took a similar approach; another facility saw a 54% drop.

Research has found that lack of prenatal care increases the harm done by cocaine to fetuses -- so this policy is not only unproductive, it is actively counterproductive.

Second, taking a baby away from its mother during its first year of life -- when that child is not going to be adopted permanently, but returned -- is profoundly damaging to the mother/child bond. Every transition between caregivers is potentially traumatic for a child -- research has linked increased numbers of transitions with countless negative outcomes including antisocial behavior, crime, depression, and other serious mental illnesses.

Finally, if the prosecutor really wants to prevent drug-related birth defects, research shows that alcohol-- legal, widely available alcohol -- is the most dangerous recreational drug to fetal health. While cocaine and tobacco do an equivalent amount of subtle, but sometimes measurable harm -- the harm done by alcohol is not subtle and is easily noticed, even by people without medical training.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is the number one known cause of mental retardation -- something not linked with any other recreational drug.

Including any one of these facts would have given better context to the Times story -- and helped readers understand why what sounds like a good idea often isn't.