NBC’S new up-and-coming show, “New Amsterdam,” is about one of America’s oldest medical institutions. Although I hadn’t heard of the show before, a commercial for an upcoming episode seemed interesting enough. However, I was disappointed and alarmed when the episode of perpetuated dangerous stereotypes about drug use and pregnancy.
In the episode “The Forsaken,” Dr. Helen Sharpe comes into contact with a single mother struggling with a dependence on opioids who had just given birth to a baby girl, Zuhrah. Zuhrah was later diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), a very treatable condition that stems from exposure to drugs such as opioids . The baby is eventually given to the biological father, who was unaware of the pregnancy up until right before meeting his daughter.
Near the end of the episode, Dr. Sharpe tells the father that “Zuhrah was born addicted to opioids,” and goes on to explain her condition. In this episode, the characterization and portrayal of opioid dependence in pregnant people and the subsequent result is grossly irresponsible – not only to viewers, but to people who struggle with substance use disorders and drug dependence.
The myth of “babies being born addicted” to a type of drug has been roundly debunked by experts. Addiction is characterized as “a technical term that refers to compulsive behaviors despite adverse circumstances;” therefore, babies cannot be addicted to anything. Some babies exposed to opiates can be born with abstinence (withdrawal), but there is safe and effective treatment available for that . The myth that babies can be born addicted to drugs has been largely discredited, and perpetuating these myths across a large platform is not only dangerous, but is also irresponsible.
“[Zuhrah’s] mother was doing drugs while she was pregnant with her. Why didn’t you get her help?” Dr. Sharpe asks the father accusingly.
Sharpe’s accusation is preposterous for a number of reasons. First, evidence shows that forced treatment, especially drug treatment, does not work in most cases, and can do more harm than good . Second, the barriers to quality healthcare that pregnant people face can be insurmountable, especially pregnant people who use drugs or have used drugs in the past and face punishment. In many states, drug use during pregnancy can result in forced medical intervention, forced treatment, psychiatric hospitals and even jail time. As of 2017, 18 states consider substance use during pregnancy to be grounds for civil commitment or involuntary detention in a treatment facility . The stigma around substance use and pregnancy is enough to drive pregnant people away from seeking healthcare in the form of drug treatment and even necessary prenatal care.
The stereotypes, stigma, and utter lack of credible information in the “The Forsaken” episode of NBC’s “New Amsterdam” is irresponsible to viewers and all pregnant people. Perpetuating dangerous ideas about drug use and pregnancy on such a huge platform does a disservice to not only pregnant people and drug users, but to viewers who may not know that some common myths about drug use and pregnancy have been discredited . “New Amsterdam” missed an opportunity to provide the facts on the very important issue of drug use and pregnancy, and instead used pregnant women who struggle with drug dependence and substance use disorders as a plot device.