As we work for a "better future," what are we working for? Of course
the answer is today's children.
Last October the South Carolina state Supreme Court upheld the criminal
prosecution of pregnant women who use drugs. The court was deciding
the case of Cornelia Whitner who in 1992 pleaded guilty to child
neglect when her baby was born with traces of cocaine in its blood. Ms.
Whitner, 33, was sentenced to 8 years in prison. After serving 16
months, she sought to have her conviction overturned on grounds that
the fetus is not a person under child abuse laws.
In its October 27, 1997 decision, the South Carolina court affirmed
that the fetus IS a person and said, "The abuse or neglect of a child
at any time during childhood can exact a profound toll on the child
herself [sic] as well as on society as a whole.
"However," the court went on, "the consequences of abuse or neglect
which takes [sic] place after birth often pale in comparison to those
resulting from abuse suffered by the viable fetus before birth."
Prosecutors in at least 30 states have used various criminal statutes
to bring charges of child abuse against pregnant women using drugs or
alcohol. But only South Carolina, so far, has upheld such charges. Some
states have successfully held that the fetus is a person under wrongful
death laws (for example, charging a man with murder after he stabbed
his pregnant wife and killed the fetus in her womb) but until now no
state has said that a fetus is a person under child abuse laws.
Lawyers for Ms. Whitner said they would appeal the South Carolina
decision to the Supreme Court of the United States. "If [a] fetus is a
person, everything a pregnant woman does is potentially child abuse,
abortion is murder, and women lose the right to make medical decisions
on their own behalf during pregnancy," said Lynn Paltrow, who
represented Ms. Whitner.
Ms. Paltrow said that the effect of the ruling would be to deter
pregnant women from seeking prenatal care, for fear that their drug use
might be discovered. Actually, under the South Carolina ruling, failing
to get prenatal care could conceivably constitute child abuse, as could
drinking, smoking, or knowingly ingesting other toxic substances during
If the South Carolina decision is allowed to stand, it could have far-
reaching consequences for the pesticide industry, the waste
incineration industries (medical, solid and hazardous wastes), metal
smelters, coal-fired power plants, petrochemical processing plants,
plastics manufacturers and other major emitters of dioxins, mercury,
cadmium, or any number of other chemicals that can cross the placenta
and harm fetuses.
For example, the NEW SCIENTIST reported November 22, 1997 (pg. 4) that
"Millions of children across the world may have been mentally damaged
after being exposed to low levels of mercury before they were born."
NEW SCIENTIST cited a study of children whose mothers ate substantial
amounts of fish. At age 7, the children showed deficits in learning,
attention, memory, spatial perception, and motor skills. "The children
with increased exposure performed as though they were a few months
behind for their age," says Philippe Grandjean of Odense University in
Denmark. NEW SCIENTIST quotes an EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency] report saying that an estimated 85,000 U.S. women of
childbearing age have excessive exposures to mercury.
The mercury in fish comes 60% from burning coal and oil, and 36% from
waste incineration, according to NEW SCIENTIST. The Electric Power
Research Institute (EPRI) says it would cost up to $10 billion to fit
power plant smoke stacks with filters to capture mercury, and they say
it's just not worth it.
* * *
As the 20th century slinks to a close, the variety of hazards
afflicting American children seems to be multiplying.
In late 1997, two new studies found that one in four (25%) adolescent
girls in the U.S. has been sexually or physically abused or has been
forced by a date to have sex against her will.
A poll in late 1995, conducted by Kaiser Permanente, a health care
company, and by Children Now, a children's advocacy group in Oakland,
California, found that 40% of girls between the ages of 14 and 17 said
they knew someone who had been hit or beaten by a boyfriend.
* * *
In October, 1995, the National Center for Health Statistics reported
that the proportion of obese children in the U.S. doubled during the
last 3 decades. The study found that 4.7 million American children
(10.9%) between the ages of 6 and 17 were overweight --up from 5% in
the period 1963-1965. Most of the increase in obesity occurred during
the 1980s, the study said. Reason: worsening diet and diminishing
* * *
In early 1996, the International Narcotics Control Board (an agency of
the United Nations) reported that 10 to 12% of American boys between
the ages of 6 and 14 are now taking the prescription drug
methylphenidate (brand name: Ritalin) --a stimulant drug prescribed to
control vaguely-defined attention-deficit disorders. Manufacture of
Ritalin rose from 3 tons in 1990 to 8.5 tons in 1994, 90% of it
prescribed in the U.S.
* * *
The U.S. Public Health Service said in 1997 that children's illiteracy
is a "major public health problem." An estimated 40% of American
children are poor readers and half of those have severe problems. If a
child hasn't learned to read well by the third grade (usually age 9),
most likely they will remain poor readers for the rest of their lives.
"With that failure often comes a lifetime of disappointment and
privation--and burdens for society," according to reading researchers.
Among children identified as learning disabled in the third grade, 74%
remain disabled in 12th grade, according G. Reid Lyon, chief of the
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development within the
National Institutes of Health.
Children of poor, urban families have the most trouble. A survey of the
City of Baltimore found that an astonishing 89% of school children
rated less that satisfactory on a standardized test of reading and
* * *
In late 1994, the Carnegie Corporation released a 3-year study of U.S.
children. The Carnegie report painted a bleak picture indeed. As the
NEW YORK TIMES said at the time, "It is a picture of a United States
that ranks near the bottom of the industrialized nations in providing
such services as universal health care, subsidized child care and
extensive leaves from work for families with children under age 3,
despite recent scientific evidence that these early years are critical
in the development of the human brain."
More than half of women with children under a year old are working.
"Many of their children spend most of each week in such poor child care
that it threatens to harm their development," the NEW YORK TIMES said,
based on the Carnegie report. "The quality of these young lives is
deteriorating even as mounting scientific evidence indicates that
children's environment, from birth to age 3, helps determine their
brain structure and ability to learn," the TIMES said.
* * *
Of America's 12 million children under the age of 3, one in four (25%)
lives in poverty. Ten million children live in families with no
health insurance coverage. According to the federal Department of
Health and Human Services the "welfare reform" law passed by Congress
and signed by President Clinton in 1996 will move an additional 1.1
million children into poverty.
* * *
During 1996, three long-term studies showed that children born to poor
mothers and mothers with low IQs can "massively improve their
intellectual abilities" if they are given high-quality education in the
first five years of life. And the benefits endure. Children who
were given special attention early in life consistently performed
better on math and reading tests at ages 8, 12, and 15.
One study, called the Carolina Abecedarian project, begun in 1972, gave
children one-on-one attention in an all-day, year-round nursery school
starting at age 6 months until age 5, with spectacular results.
Unfortunately, the cost per child of the Abecedarian Project is $6,000
per year, so only the well-to-do could afford such education, unless it
were supported by public funds.
* * *
In 1995, a study of 18 industrialized nations found that poor children
in the U.S. were poorer than poor children in most other Western
industrialized countries. Only in Israel and Ireland are poor children
poorer than poor children in the U.S. The study cited 3 reasons for
the U.S.'s low standing (16th out of 18):
(1) disparities between the rich and the poor are greater in this
country than in other industrialized countries;
(2) welfare programs in this country are less generous than in other
countries [and this was before the 1996 "welfare reform" law was
(3) in the U.S., households with children tend to have lower incomes
than the national average --a pattern not found in most other
* * *
During the economic recession of the early 1990s, the states raised
sales and excise taxes, which fall hardest on people with low incomes.
They also raised income taxes, which fall most heavily on the rich.
After 1994, with corporate profits and the stock markets booming,
states cut taxes --they cut taxes for the wealthy, without reducing the
tax burdens of the poor.
From 1990 to 1993, sales and excise taxes were raised by $11.7 billion,
and 98% of those taxes are still in effect today.
From 1990 to 1993, states increased income taxes by $8.2 billion, but
since 1994 the states have passed income tax cuts totaling $9.4
billion, more than wiping out the early-'90s tax increases on the rich.
In sum, the trend across the states in the 1990s is to shift taxes from
the wealthy to the poor.
* * *
As we slouch toward the new millennium, we can't help asking proudly,
is this a nation blessed with forward-looking leaders, or what?
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Tamar Lewin, "Abuse Laws Cover Fetus, a High Court Rules," NEW YORK
TIMES October 30, 1997, pg. A22.
 Philippe Grandjean and others, "Cognitive Deficit in 7-Year-Old
Children with Prenatal Exposure to Methylmercury," NEUROTOXICOLOGY AND
TERATOLOGY Vol. 19, No. 6 (1997), pgs. 417-428.
 Tamar Lewin, "Sexual Abuse Tied to 1 in 4 Girls in Teens," NEW YORK
TIMES October 1, 1997, pg. A24.
 Tamar Lewin, "Parents Poll Shows Child Abuse to Be More Common,"
NEW YORK TIMES December 7, 1995, pg. B16.
 Associated Press, "Study Finds a Soaring Rate of Obesity in U.S.
Children," NEW YORK TIMES October 8, 1995, pg. 34.
 Barbara Crossette, "Agency Sees Risk in Drug To Temper Child
Behavior," NEW YORK TIMES February 29, 1996, pg. A14.
 Marego Athans, "Young readers left to struggle," BALTIMORE SUN
November 2, 1997, pgs. 1A, 10A, 11A.
 Susan Chira, "Study Confirms Worst Fears on U.S. Children," NEW
YORK TIMES April 12, 1994, pgs. A1, A13.
 "Endangered Children [editorial]," NEW YORK TIMES April 15, 1994,
 Peter Edelman, "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done," ATLANTIC
MONTHLY (March 1997), pgs. 43-58.
 "Give me a child before five... [editorial]," NEW SCIENTIST
(February 24, 1996), pg. 3.
 Eric Stokstad, "Hothousing toddlers makes teenagers smarter," NEW
SCIENTIST (February 24, 1996), pg. 10.
 Keith Bradsher, "Low Ranking for Poor American Children," NEW YORK
TIMES August 14, 1995, pg. A9.
 Nicholas Johnson and Iris J. Lav, ARE STATE TAXES BECOMING MORE
REGRESSIVE? (Washington, D.C.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,
October 29, 1997). Available on the world wide web at
Descriptor terms: children; child abuse; child neglect; south carolina;
fetal contamination; mercury; electric power industry; fossil fuels;
coal; petroleum; oil; obesity; ritalin; methylphenidate; illiteracy;
abecedarian project; early education; head start; taxes; taxation;