July 26, 2005
Should Pregnant Drug Abusers Be Institutionalized?

A single hit of methamphetamine causes brain damage in fetal mice.

A single prenatal dose of methamphetamine – commonly known as speed – may be enough to cause long-term neurodevelopmental problems in babies, say University of Toronto researchers.

In research published in the August issue of Free Radical Biology and Medicine, U of T pharmacy and pharmacology professor Peter Wells and his colleagues determined that exposing pregnant mice only once to methamphetamine led to delivery of offspring with long-term neurodevelopmental problems, including reduced motor co-ordination. Methamphetamine is a potent and addictive stimulant.

"We've known for a while that meth abuse during pregnancy is associated with low birth weight, cleft palates and other malformations but this is the first research demonstrating that even a single exposure can cause long-term damage," says Wells. "It's pretty remarkable that a single low dose can have such an effect.

"It's an important finding, given the increasing use of club drugs among women of childbearing age. It has clinical implications, because it shows that the fetus is exquisitely sensitive."

The developing fetus appears to be vulnerable to DNA damage from methamphetamine exposure because it hasn't yet developed the enzymes that protect it against free radicals – highly activated, destructive oxygen molecules that have been implicated in cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, says Wells. This vulnerability lasts from the embryonic stage through the later fetal period, times when organ structures and mental functions develop.

Should pregnant women who use crystal meth or any form of methamphetamine get locked up in institutions until their babies are born? What if they intend to breast feed? Should they remain locked up until the babies are weened off breast milk?

Meanwhile meth use is a growing problem and not just in rural areas.

According to a survey of law enforcement organizations conducted by the National Association of Counties and released this month, 87 percent of the 500 agencies that participated reported increases in meth arrests in the past three years.

Agencies in Indiana, California, Minnesota, Florida and Ohio reported the number of meth-related arrests had doubled in this time. Iowa, Mississippi, Illinois and North Dakota reported increases of 90 percent or greater.

Is reproduction such a basic sacred right that the state should not dare interfere with it? If drug users want to pop out the babies for the state and foster homes to raise? Should people be permitted to engage in reproductive practices that lead to premature births and brain damaged babies who grow up to be brain damaged adults and wards of the state?

Some commenters raised objections to the tone of my previous post "Low Birth Weight Baby Development Problems Raise Ethical Question". Well okay then. Does the state have no moral right to intervene in the reproductive process? If technological advances make home crystal meth production cheap and easy and lots more fertile women become crystal meth abusers should the state take no steps to enforce safe and responsible reproductive practices?

I see this as linked to an even bigger coming question: When technology advances to the point where people can tinker with the genes of their offspring should the state state limits on how much aggressiveness or other qualities parents should be allowed to genetically engineer into their kids? Does the "unnatural" aspect of genetic engineering provide the state a unique reason to intervene and regulate reproduction where it should not have that power absent that "unnaturalness" that comes from the use of genetic engineering technoloogies?

Some might want to allow state regulation of reproduction involving genetic engineering while otherwise opposing state regulation of reproduction as a violation of basic human rights. But if genetic engineering makes reproduction sufficiently unnatural as to become regulable then why don't all the technologies used to keep premature babies alive have the same effect? After all, the ultimate baby preserving technology which will be developed to keep premies alive will be the complete artificial womb. Once we have artificial wombs then many of the spontaneously aborted (and probably genetically defective) fetuses will not get aborted unless someone flips a switch on the artificial womb. A decision previously made by natural processes which are the product of natural selection or by God (take your pick based on your beliefs - but I'm with Darwin) will be under the conscious control of human minds - just as the decision to put a premie in an incubator is now a human decision.

So when should the state regulate reproduction? Why? Are you a utilitarian? Do you think that people have the right to produce offspring they can't afford to raise and then expect the state (i.e. the taxpaying rest of us) to pay for? Do you think that state intervention against reproducing druggies is a moral and practical necessity or an immoral interference in basic human rights?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 July 26 03:48 PM  Bioethics Debate

odograph said at July 26, 2005 4:37 PM:

i think the theory of institutionalization(?) is fine. care for people who, through some infirmity, are a danger to themsleves, or others. in practice, this is tricky.

Phillep said at July 26, 2005 5:31 PM:

Didn't we go through this once already with cocaine?

Lars said at July 26, 2005 7:22 PM:

I dont believe this research is true. We've seen the same sham-science with other drugs in the past. Motor-coordination? So the mice weren't as active? How does that prove DNA damage or even neurodevelopmental problems? If it caused DNA damage, why haven't they tested the DNA?

Reports on the behavioral effects of prenatal exposure to amphetamine in rodents are inconsistent. Activity levels have been variously reported to increase, decrease, or show no change following such exposure.

Even if it is true, mice are not humans. If this were true in humans we'd have a generation of retarded children out there. Where are they? This sounds a lot like the crack baby scare of the 80s. Which turned out to be completely untrue.

I wonder who funded this research. Could it be the NIDA? Nawwwww couldnt be! They're not interested in demonizing drug use at all!

blue said at July 26, 2005 9:15 PM:

Aren't pregnant drug abusing mothers violating the rights of their babies? Would anyone choose to become brain damaged during the fetal stage? Can't society interfere on the grounds that they are protecting the rights of the babies involved?

Patrick said at July 27, 2005 12:06 AM:

How about this: A pregnant woman who takes drugs is supplying illegal drugs to a child.

If she gave the child drugs after ta was born, it would be a simple open and shut case wouldn't it?

So why not look at it that way?

Brett Bellmore said at July 27, 2005 2:00 AM:

I echo the doubts; It's been remarkable just how often highly publicized research that concludes that illegal drug use has some horrible effect in just one dose turns out to have been faulty... You'd almost think we had a government agency out there with it's thumb on the scale, buying bad research for PR purposes.

Oh, wait, we do. Never mind...

However, assume for the moment that the effect is real, and exists in humans, too. It would be staggeringly unlikely that meth is the only chemical a pregnant woman might encounter that could have this effect; Lack of anti-oxidant protection is a pretty basic mechanism, after all! This suggests that we should find out what effects high doses of anti-oxidants capable of crossing the placental barrier have on fetal development. Since there ARE people taking such anti-oxidants, and such a glaring vulnerability being geneticly conserved suggests that it just might have some role in fetal development, being tied into programed cell death, perhaps.

It might be that we need to regulate the use of anti-oxidants during pregnancy... Alternatively, if their use turns out to not distort fetal development, and to be protective, it should be highly encouraged. AND, it's easier by far to make sure that an addict takes substance B periodically, than it is to make sure they never take substance A even once.

Second, it's worth remembering that the chief reason there's a trade in meth, is that the government has gone to great lengths to make it difficult to get the precursors for *safer* illegal drugs. Maybe instead of responding to the human desire to get high by locking up people in cells, we should be trying to find ways to make it safer, instead of more dangerous?

Hey, maybe we could fight the illegal drug trade by offering subsidized operations to turn people into wireheads. I doubt THAT has any effect on fetal development.

buffpilot said at July 27, 2005 7:27 AM:


Your argument is that can society afford to take care of our least productive members. You seem to make the case that children should be born if they can reasonably be expected to give more than they take. I would say it is beneficial, to the character of the society as a whole, to care for these people. And yes, your and my wallets will have to give some to do it. I am not sure any of us want to go back to the days when crippled/deformed babies were ‘given back’ to the gods. Or to a society were we explicitly say the rich can survive but the poor will die (think Christopher Reeves vs some unknown drunk).

A more interesting question, I feel, is how society will react when scientists say, ”By doing this simple protocol/drug therapy at 3 months into the pregnancy we can produce IQ 200 +/-10 babies.” Will society force mothers to have this done? Will society, unable to compete with the 200 IQ next generation, let it be born? I have children, they are all above average IQs, but in that environment they would be mentally retarded (as would I). Of all the potentials coming this seems to be a very good bet.

For the sake of discussion assume that nothing else can be done to improve IQ of the already born (i.e. gsmoke, who said he would e all for it – as long as he could compete, cannot compete).

James Bowery said at July 27, 2005 7:47 AM:

As always territorial self-determiantion should come first. The only question is how to divide up territory and deal with environmental externalities that cross borders. People who don't want to take care of the crank-babies of those with a liberal attitude toward meth-mothers should not be subjected to the immigration of those meth-mothers or their issue. Likewise they should be able to, via eminent domain, acquire the citizenship and other property rights of the meth-mothers and their issue and expell them.

michael vassar said at July 27, 2005 7:51 AM:

Brett, how much interest do you think there would be in wireheading if it was available. I have always found it odd that it is NOT available. I think that it may even be legal. At the least, doctors could offer mild wireheading as a depression treatment or something.
Randall, I'm pretty sure buffpilot is basically correct. We will be able to change many things with germ mod gene engineering, but only one really matters. More aggressive, less, more conscientious, less, the aggregate distribution of these traits influences society, but it doesn't matter. More intelligent, much more, is a trait where distribution is basically irrelevant. A few individuals of superhuman intelligence, or more to the point a few people of superhuman technical cleverness, would change society to the point where other considerations fade to insignificance. People of mere human technical cleverness have already done that.

Brett said at July 27, 2005 8:15 AM:

This is why I hate universal health care. When the state starts footing the bill, there are only bad choices. Do we, a)force all taxpayers to foot the bills for children who are unlikely to ever be productive members of society, or b)euthanize/abort these children, is a terrible question. If that's the only choice I have, I'll take a. Health Insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid hasn't helped anyone but the insurance companies and big pharma. I'd rather give a GP $100 cash on the table the one time a year I end up in his office rather than pay endlessly for health insurance I don't use. I still have to find catastrophic (>$250K Lifetime) insurance on my own now.
As to the question about when and if the government should regulate reproduction, I'd rather take my chances with individuals making those choices on an individual basis than let the government get into it. The only thing I trust the government to do is make a shambles of anything it touches while tripling the cost.
For my money, IQ is an overblown statistic above about 105-110. If I had a dollar for every highly intelligent person who is useless as teats on a boar, I'd be pushing six figures. Physical size and strength are kind of a wash in the current and probably future economies...let 'em tinker away. Nurture will always have a place, and God knows we've been tinkering with that forever; you wanna add variables and tinker actively with the Nature side, go ahead.

Randall Parker said at July 27, 2005 8:24 AM:


A lot of people who are pro-abortion don't want to criminalize anything done to fetuses based on what is illegal to to do the already born. Why? They do not want fetuses given any of the legal rights of babies because that would work against keeping abortion legal.

I'm personally ambivalent about abortion (and about a number of other questions involving what is a human and what should possess rights). So I'm not stating this to take sides on the abortion issue. I am just letting you know about the lay of the political land.

I take a more utilitarian view. The more unproductive members of society we have then the bigger the welfare state will be and the greater the burden that will be placed on the most productive members of society. Since I tend to see myself in that latter category I'm really not keen on changes that increase the number of unproductive members of society. Well, many uses of advances in technology are increasing the ranks of the unproductive, no doubt about it in my mnd.

Randall Parker said at July 27, 2005 8:42 AM:


Certainly some smart people are lazy. But the same is true of some dumb people. But statistical studies have shown that there are big differences in outcomes between 120, 130, and 140+, IQ people. The rare 180+ IQ people stand out as unusual in their intellectual accomplishments. Though there are so few it is hard to make generalizations about them with confidence. A great source of papers on what IQ research has shown about human accomplishment is the reprint page of psychometrician Linda Gottfredson. Anyone who wants to develop an appreciation for what psychometrics research has demonstrated could benefit from reading some of her papers. For example, read Why g matters: The complexity of everyday life (PDF format). Also see her paper g: Highly general and highly practical (PDF format).

buffpilot said at July 27, 2005 8:44 AM:


IQ, in my discussion, is a simple way of saying that we may be able to produce people that are, on the average, smarter than almost anyone born normally. Yes, some smart people can be very useless and I have met a bunch myself - couldn't find their way out of a paper sack. Already I bet we all know many people who can barely function in our high-tech society with its constant change. But more and more jobs cannot be accomplished by your average high school grad with one days training (i.e. unskilled labor). What happens when you need a masters degree just to compete in the 'unskilled' category? What happens when these 'super smart kids' are the only ones who can handle anything but unskilled work? Michael V is right, only a few can have profound changes on society.

I would probably vote against such children, and actively be against it, not as a luddite, but from the simple fact I couldn't look my kids in the eyes and tell them their future is to be the waiters for the intellectual elite. I have a 4 year old. If this came out tomorrow and became widespread in a year, what future would my child have? The IQ 200 kids will be graduating with PhDs when my child is applying to college. My older kids would watch as the world changed out from under them, their dreams of the top jobs ended as the new generation ran over them. By age 40 they would be treated as retarded by their own 200-IQ kids (well is that different how? you ask - but a different subject :)).

Randall, and others, always do hand waves about the problems of the transition. I feel anything that makes changes like SENS, IQ enhancement, etc., that's not universal, will quickly lead to violence. Once all of us inferior types die off, there won't be a problem...
Another reason to treat the powerless well - we may one day be the powerless.

sr said at July 27, 2005 8:59 AM:

"For my money, IQ is an overblown statistic above about 105-110."

I can easily believe that you think that.:

Jaime said at July 27, 2005 12:25 PM:

How far do you want to take this?

Should we institutionalize pregnent women who live in dangerous areas? Eat poorly? Live with a smoker? How do you imagine enforcing this: perhaps we should issue breeding licenses, upon which we can attach conditions like "only if you move to the breeding camp". Of course, for that to work, one needs enforced infirtility until a license is granted.

Before you claim this isn't a valid slippery slope, reflect on the fact that the current trend in the pro-life camp is gradually whittling down Roe v. Wade - leave it technically legal while placing tons of restrictions on it, while also attacking the economics of providers and some of the silly no-crossing-states-lines laws.

The idea that small increases in the economic "the burden that will be placed on the most productive members of society" is a valid utilitarian argument for a rather serious infringment on personal liberty on a large group of society is rather abhorrent. Unless, perhaps, you're not a member of that group.

Lei said at July 28, 2005 11:17 AM:

This is the kind of issue that has everyone talking in circles. In many ways, I don't think science plays such a big part in determining policy. Whoever's in power determines the ideology imposed upon the population.

Brett said at July 28, 2005 1:24 PM:

Follow the link to see where this debate ends up:


michael vassar said at July 28, 2005 1:35 PM:

Regardless of whether IQ means something (as far as I can tell, near the mean it means immensely much, but at extremes above the 99th percentile and below the 1st percentile the tests are not well validated) there is no serious doubt that some people are smarter than others, and in fact, there is no serious doubt that some people are much smarter than anyone would be validly predicted to be based just on IQ. Some people, such as Feynman, Crick, Pauling, or Von Neumann is capable of studying the basics in a field for a few months and reaching insights that elude experienced professionals. Others, such as Einstein and Bohr are capable beating paths through concept-space that mere ordinary geniuses and super-high IQ types such as Vos Savant frequenly find themselves incapable even of understanding. Still others, such as Tesla, or Pasteur can personally do more to advance technology than even the largest corporations, while people like Darwin (or Smith, or Markowitz) can notice that one of science's most pressing questions is answered by a simple tautology, wait 20 years before another human being makes the same observation, and wait another century before the savants of his field come to appreciate the full range of his elaborations on that basic insight. IQ tests don't predict such people, but they exist (and were much more common a century ago), and without them 99% of the population would still be living in squallor for an average of 30 or 40 years. There seem to have been a few hundred such people, or a few thousand by the most generous counts. What would the world be like if we could bring them about on command rather than simply waiting for history to hand us one? This is surely not a matter of being out-competed in the market, but rather of having the world recreated out from underneath you.

Reed said at July 28, 2005 11:52 PM:

I agree with the premise that we should do everything in our power to prevent problems for kids before they are born, but we should avoid appraising the value of people's lives. Once we start in with that, we reduce people to mere substance, and we are one step closer to a future in which "inferior" people may be rounded up and euthanized "for their own good" because their lives "aren't worth living." It'll be a paranoid world, in which new generations are constantly clawing for control from an old generation whose differences are too great to be ignored.

We should slog along slowly in our current path, with the inborn abilities we already have. What's the point of progress if we lose our humanity, and our ability to enjoy the fruits of technology?

Patrick said at July 29, 2005 1:06 AM:

This thread seems to be talking about two entirely different actions.

One group is saying "People should not be allowed to injure unborn babies"

The other group is saying "You should not be allowed to kill babies that have been already injured."

I don't see how one position is opposed by the other.

Meanwhile, Michael Vassar: Why do you say that super-geniuses were more common a century ago? I would have thought that it was a matter of
1. The average level was a bit lower back then, so the super-geniuses stood out more.
2. A lot of the "low hanging fruit" has been picked since then, so it is harder to revolutionize an area of knowledge.
3. Modern institutions have evolved to take advantage of the truely brilliant, so that a modern Louis Pastuer is more likely to be able to work inside a Pfizer or similar corporation (at least more likely than in the 19th century). Hence his discoveries are more likely to look like the work of a group, whereas really one idividual is doing 90% of the real innovation.
4. And most speculative, the start of the 20th century was a time of more radical change than our own time, so more fields were being revolutionized back then. (NO, I don't think that the introduction of podcasting changes society more than the introduction of electricity. So prove me wrong.)

michael vassar said at July 29, 2005 7:43 AM:

I say that primarily because the early 20th century was a time of more radical change.
A great fraction of the major discoveries were of sorts entirely unlike the sort of work that one gets from corporations. If Pasteur is working for Pfizer today, he is also accomplishing far less, despite the resources and team.
Changes to averages and low-hanging fruit are unimpressive to me. Why was induced hibernation just discovered (and resveratrol) if the low-hanging fruit are mostly gone? I could belive significant depletion, but there are still LOTS of low hanging fruit left.
Did the average of the top 1% change? If so, who was reading the literature of the day? Who understood Relativity well enough for it to displace the previous paradigm?
Look, this may be controvercial in science, so lets look to art, where there really isn't any serious controvercy. If someone says that the 99.9th percentile visual, musical, or literary artist today is as good as the 99.9th percentile from 100 years ago, even in absolute terms as opposed to relative, they are simply not informed enough for their opinion to be taken seriously. Charles Murray's "Human Accomplishment" really does state the case rather well.

By the way, I'm less sure in math. Our best mathematicians may be the equals of Euler and Gauss. If they are, I wouldn't know it, as they are presumably working on arcana which I will never be familiar with.

Randall Parker said at July 29, 2005 9:12 AM:

Michael Vassar,

I agree with those who argue that a lot of the low hanging fruit was found.

However, I have another suggestion for what has changed: Smart minds are being funnelled more efficiently toward wealth producing activities. For example, rather than write symphonies for the elite musicians and lyricists write advertisement music and ad copy. Our problem may well be that the best minds have been funnelled toward serving the desires of the masses.

Or look at novels. If you are bright why write a great novel when you can write TV show episodes and make far more money per year?

The curious thing about this situation is that wealthy people are not funding composers to write in the classical styles. We have lots of billionaires. Why aren't many funding better music? Maybe all the would-be classical composers are being funnelled away from music or at least away from classical music and hence they never show up as candidates for funding.

Shanika said at July 29, 2005 11:51 AM:

Most musical geniuses be writing hip-hop these days. Hip-hop is the classical music of today. You got to know that any mother that be using crack or meth won't be eating right. What's the biggest problem? Poor nutrition or drugs for pregnant girls? Some idiot said that crack babies be a myth. That's denial. That's racist denial.
I say bring on the 200 IQ babies. We be needing lots of help with problems, so the smarter the better. What fool wants to keep people stupid? Not me, home.

Randall Parker said at July 29, 2005 11:58 AM:


No, hip-hop is incredibly simple and without long term value. Most of popular music will be forgotten in 100 years. A lot of music from a few decades ago is already rarely listened to. But Mozart and Bach will live on.

futurehead said at August 15, 2005 9:12 AM:

The concept of “genius” was of particular concern to Nietzsche, whose critique of history as a normative guide is perhaps the most useful observation ever made in social "science." He noted that the students of history will tend to romanticize the past, so that historical figures loom larger than any contemporary possibly could.

This romantic bias makes sense from an economic perspective, because as society gains increasing efficiency through specialization, we would expect that those with the capacity for brilliance must spend more time dedicating themselves to a narrower field, leaving less time to become a “renaissance-man.”

Also, if you loosely consider the fact that the contributions of any genius have to have emerged from some subset of the general human knowledge base that is superior to the whole, then the extraneous information will be lost over time. Once this has been shed, the genius’ contributions stand in starker contrast to the era, and seem to cover more area in more fields of modern study.

As for the general, ongoing debate, I believe the fundamental problem to be one that has always plagued society and cannot be readily disposed of by political means -- the problem of intra-special conflict and reproductive “rights.” I seriously doubt that it is even possible to assess an individual’s reproductive fitness or even set general guidelines through a process of political deliberation and voting. The best we could hope for is that individuals estimate, to the best of their ability, what it will take to raise a child, and then take that gamble.

One of the problems with making this decision is the fact that people act reproductively not based on the expected costs of pregnancy, but on the expected costs of sex, which is discounted by the probability of conception. We can therefore expect over-investment in sex because its pleasure -- physical or otherwise -- disproportionately outweighs the seemingly remote costs of childbirth. This is especially true of those who severely downplay their own future preferences -- people with zero savings, no demand for education, etc.

The problem is that our socio-political safety net induces a moral hazard whereby people know that we will never let a child fall by the wayside. This mentality worked well enough in the days when the burden was borne by the local community. This obligation spurred communities to institute non-political norms (e.g., cultural or religious) that kept reproduction in check.

However, there are currently no such disincentives to have children. The community does not immediately suffer from unwanted births; it takes half a generation before the ill-effects such as crime, unemployment, and drug-use become recognizable problems. I believe that this partly explains the pendulum-effect seen in various communities, where values fluctuate between the extremes of hedonism and religion.

The inter-generational timescale, combined with the unwillingness to interfere with reproductive rights (lest ye be labeled “Nazi”), creates a politically intractable problem.

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