Barb Berggoetz, The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS (INDIANAPOLIS STAR) - Indiana's attorney general said he merely wanted to draw attention to the growing problem of babies being born with symptoms of prescription drug withdrawal.
But what Greg Zoeller did was spark a debate, mostly in cyberspace, about whether drug testing for pregnant women should be mandatory.
Two national groups, MoveOn, and RH Reality Check, are circulating an online petition calling on Zoeller to apologize for asking Indiana lawmakers to approve mandatory drug testing and to stop inciting disrespect for pregnant women's civil liberties. The petition has more than 3,500 signatures.
Zoeller says he has never called for mandatory testing.
As co-chairman of the state's Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Task Force, he has been speaking about solutions to prevent babies from suffering from a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. Babies born to mothers who are abusing prescription or illicit drugs can have the syndrome, which often results in seizures, breathing problems, dehydration, tremors and difficulty feeding.
"I never intended to say we either had recommended mandatory testing or that we would," Zoeller told The Indianapolis Star. "I wasn't calling for it."
But Sue Ellen Braunlin of Carmel, Ind., co-president of the Indiana Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice, said his comments on a TV talk show indicated otherwise. The comments were made on P-I Live in Richmond, a public affairs interview program produced by Gannett newspaper the (Richmond Ind.) Palladium-Item.
Callers had asked him about a recent story, in which he was reported as saying that drug testing was one solution to identify the problem early.
When Zoeller was questioned on the show about mandatory testing and its legality, Zoeller responded: "Well, it is legal. I'll tell you, everybody's jumping to the conclusion that when you do a drug screen, you turn somebody into the police. That's not what we're looking for."
He added that pregnant women already routinely have their blood drawn for other reasons.
"I'm asking that they do another screen to see if you are addicted to opiates or other things that would harm you as well as the baby. The doctor really ought to know that, and most, let's say, a lot of what we hear is the women who are pregnant will lie about having a drug problem and (doctors) don't know about it until the baby is born addicted."
Early in pregnancies, women's blood is drawn typically to test for HIV, hepatitis and other conditions that could affect the babies.
An Indianapolis physician who specializes in women's health said doctors already have the discretion to test pregnant women for drugs through a urine test if they suspect a problem.
"Having a universal screening policy creates a whole other host of problems about what are you going to do with the information and how are you going to take care of them," said Dr. Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber, director of the National Center of Excellence in Women's Health and an Indiana University School of Medicine associate professor.
Having universal testing doesn't make sense if rehabilitation programs are few and if women are scared away from prenatal care, she said.
The specter of further testing for prescription drugs, as explained by Zoeller, was enough to alarm some people.
"It was clear to me that (mandatory testing) was a plan," Braunlin said. "It's not the same as what he's saying now."
A transcript of Zoeller's talk show comments drew an online backlash and prompted the petition.
The petition was created by RH Reality Check, a daily online publication examining reproductive and sexual health and justice, and circulated by MoveOn, a family of not-for-profit progressive groups that organize and petition for social change.
Braunlin said she is particularly concerned that mandatory testing could have criminal consequences, without an immunity provision, and this potential could drive women away from prenatal care. She said a better alternative, endorsed by prominent medical groups, is having pregnant women take written screening tests that assess risks for prescription drug addiction. If the risk is determined to be high, the women could then be asked to submit to blood tests.
Zoeller said Monday that he regretted his comments were misinterpreted and have taken the focus away from reaching solutions.
In Indiana, health statistics aren't collected on the prevalence of babies born with neo-natal abstinence syndrome. But Zoeller says doctors have told him incidents are rising, as is the overall problem of prescription drug addiction.
Nationally, a study released in a 2012 medical journal estimated that about 13,500 babies a year are born in the U.S. with the condition - roughly one every hour. Infants have to be hospitalized for several weeks while doctors treat them with methadone or morphine to wean them from drugs their mothers used.
It's a problem that concerns Sen. Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the Commission on Mental Health and Addiction. The commission is also studying the problem and plans to make recommendations to the legislature.
"I think there is merit in testing, but the bigger question is if women test positive, then what do we do?" Miller said.
She said doctors have told her not enough drug addiction treatment programs are available and some don't accept pregnant women. But she said she still is investigating options and the commission is meeting on Tuesday to further discuss the problem.
"It's a very complex issue," she said. "If there are women who are drug addicted who may not seek prenatal care, that would be a negative."
Zoeller said his task force also intends to make recommendations to the legislature. The task force consists of about 80 doctors, law enforcement officials, legislators, attorneys general and health department representatives.
"Physicians are the ones who should really lead this," Zoeller said. "It's certainly not the role for a lawyer. I'm not really one to tell the doctors in the task force what to recommend."