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Doing Drugs in the Womb

September 18, 1993

An ambitious study of pregnant women in California indicates that more than one in 10 puts her baby at risk by smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs shortly before delivery. These findings, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, pose a challenge for Sacramento.

Crack babies are not a new phenomenon in California. Infants suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome are also no longer a rarity. Low birth-weight babies too are increasingly common.

The increasing incidence of these problems prompted public health officials to question how many babies are at risk and what the state can do to prevent more from suffering--and to avoid having to pick up the expensive tab that results from prenatal neglect.

To get answers, the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs commissioned the $1.8-million study, which was conducted by the University of California School of Public Health and the Western Consortium for Public Health. The results are discouraging.

As many as 41,000 infants were born last year in California to mothers who abused alcohol. As many as 31,000 were born to women who used drugs before delivery, and an estimated 54,000 were born to women who were smokers. All those children deserved a healthier start.

Gov. Pete Wilson needs no convincing. Prevention has been a hallmark of his approach to health care going back to his days in the Senate. As a result of Wilson's solid priorities, more women now are getting the care that they need, but greater access to prenatal treatment is warranted. It's important because the study found that women who get prenatal care are less likely to use substances that would hurt their babies.

Pregnant teen-agers who stay in school also are less likely to damage their unborn babies through substance abuse. That finding should encourage greater funding for school dropout prevention programs.

California deserves dollars from Washington to push prevention, and President Clinton's proposed health care reform may provide more support. In the meantime, there's nothing to stop local community and civic-minded organizations from volunteering to spread the wisdom of good prenatal care.

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