Learning About Alcohol and Drug-Related Birth Defects

The week of May 14 is Alcohol and Drug-Related Birth Defects Awareness Week. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence:

About 20% of pregnant women smoke cigarettes, 12% drink alcohol and 6% use an illicit drug at least once during pregnancy. These numbers are very alarming. If only people knew the dangers of their decisions, perhaps we would be looking at something more acceptable in those numbers.

So what are some of the dangers posed by these substances to a developing fetus?

Effects of Tobacco Use

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the fetus gets less oxygen when the mother smokes. Smoking during pregnancy is a risk factor for low birth weight, preterm birth, placenta problems, miscarriage, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Effects of Alcohol Use

I have written about the effects of alcohol use during pregnancy before — in fact, it was the subject for the first article I wrote for this blog.

Alcohol easily passes through the placenta, so when a pregnant woman drinks, so does her fetus. Continue reading

Illegal Procedure: How a 1974 Stadium Bill Put Reproductive Rights in the Sidelines

StadiumFans of the University of Arizona football team will arrive by the thousands at Arizona Stadium on September 3, the start of the fall football season, as the UA Wildcats face off against the UTSA Roadrunners, a team they defeated 26 to 23 in San Antonio last September. For fans, the stadium is a place where legends and losses are remembered. For reproductive rights advocates, it represents a devil’s bargain that took place more than 40 years ago and continues to compromise health care to this day.


In 1974, abortion rights were sacrificed to expand Arizona Stadium.


Arizona has long had a unique role in the abortion battle. In 1962, Sherri Finkbine, a Phoenix-area woman, entered the national spotlight after she found out the thalidomide she was taking as a sleep aid could cause severe fetal abnormalities. The early mortality rate among infants who were exposed to the drug was about 40 percent, in large part due to internal defects that commonly affected the kidneys, heart, digestive tract, and reproductive system.

Fearing how thalidomide would affect the development of her own fetus, Finkbine wanted to terminate her pregnancy in a state — and nation — that put legal barriers in the way of abortion. Already known to many as the star of a locally produced children’s show, she became a topic of national debate when she shared her story with a reporter from the Arizona Republic. She spoke to the reporter in the hopes of warning other mothers about thalidomide. An unintended consequence was that the publicity made it harder to quietly seek an abortion; providers who might have otherwise taken a legal risk for her couldn’t escape the attention that followed her. Continue reading

Movie Night: A Private Matter

Twenty years ago, TV viewers were subjected to what the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) called a “high-profile, long-ranging and costly” anti-choice media campaign. At an estimated final cost of $100 million, the conservative Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation launched a series of television ads from 1992 to 1998 bearing the message, “Life. What a Beautiful Choice.” Featuring images ranging from idyllic family scenes to in-utero fetuses, the ads ran on national networks and local stations alike.


A Private Matter dramatizes a story that changed minds about abortions as it captured headlines.


On the media front, the DeMoss Foundation ads presented a formidable challenge to the pro-choice majority, but more came out of 1992 than these glossed-over vignettes about difficult reproductive choices. That same year, HBO premiered its movie A Private Matter, a dramatization of the true story of Sherri Finkbine, a Phoenix-area woman and local TV celebrity who was known as Miss Sherri on the children’s program Romper Room. Finkbine made national headlines in 1962, when she and her doctor decided she should have an abortion. Finkbine had already given birth to four healthy children, but during her fifth pregnancy she learned that the sleeping pills she had been taking contained thalidomide, a drug that had recently been banned after being linked to severe fetal deformities.

Sherri Finkbine is played by Sissy Spacek, who puts on a convincing and absorbing performance. Spacek is cheerful and charismatic at first, a natural fit for the star of a children’s show, but apprehension takes over one morning when she glances at the front page of the local paper. “U.S. Bans Crippler Drug” is the first headline she sees. At work later, Sherri phones her physician, still sounding hopeful that she didn’t take the pills long enough for its side effects to have done any harm. When her physician, Dr. Werner, calls Sherri and her husband into his office later, she learns otherwise. Dr. Werner shows them photos of the effects of thalidomide and advises them to terminate Sherri’s pregnancy. Trying to ease Sherri’s shock, Dr. Werner assures her that she hasn’t done anything wrong, that it was the drug that made terminating her pregnancy so imperative. Dr. Werner promises to arrange an abortion, even as Sherri is still indecisive. Continue reading