University of Maine researcher Marie Hayes says she has been criticized for her opinion that methadone programs should incorporate birth control for addicted women.

“That sounds like you’re saying, ‘These defective people shouldn’t reproduce,’ so I’ve been attacked by social workers for that position [who say] ‘Why can’t they have a family like everyone else?’ And the answer is they can, as soon as they get their health back.”

She did not suggest that methadone programs should incorporate sterilization.

Addiction involves a difficult recovery process, usually among disadvantaged people, that should elicit compassion, Hayes said. Birth control “may be useful as part of the psychological and medical counseling regimen of people in recovery,” she said. “It may promote wellness to defer having children until stabilized in recovery.”

Hayes, a psychology professor and neuroscientist who has studied opiate-affected infants, said preventing addicted women of child-bearing age from getting pregnant during treatment is about the methadone’s effect on their unborn babies, not the women’s character.

About 15 percent of opiate-dependent mothers reproduce during treatment, according to estimates provided to Hayes by The Acadia Hospital in Bangor several years ago, she said.

She likens the idea to doctors’ insistence that women taking certain cancer drugs avoid getting pregnant. Doctors often check to be sure that patients taking chemotherapy drugs proven unsafe during pregnancy are on some form of birth control, Hayes said.

Methadone treatment has been used successfully among pregnant women for many years, and is safer for an unborn child than unchecked drug abuse. But research suggests some babies who experience withdrawal may suffer developmental delays in early childhood, Hayes said. Whether those problems persist remains uncertain.

“We should have less drug-affected babies so we don’t have to put kids at risk and then worry about them for the rest of their lives,” she said. “Then tell the mothers, ‘This is your incentive to get off methadone to straighten out your life and then have your baby.’ I think that would be far safer than what we’re currently doing, which is telling methadone patients it’s OK to have a baby on methadone.”

Carolyn Blackfeather Rae, a drug counselor based in Dixmont who formerly worked for three methadone clinics in Maine, agreed that birth control should be included in treatment programs. Addicted women aren’t thinking logically, and need better programs to help them resolve their drug dependence before becoming mothers, she said.

“These people are so young when they get pregnant, they don’t even realize the repercussions to that baby. … You shouldn’t be including another life when you’re trying to recover from something so dangerous,” Rae said.

Women are tested for pregnancy upon entering treatment, she said.

Rae wagered that nine out of 10 women would take advantage of birth control programs offered as part of substance abuse treatment.

“There should be some kind of protection for these babies that didn’t ask to be born this way,” she said.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...