Smoking and the Unborn

“It’s hypocrisy,” says one pro-life activist about the right’s silence on smoking and pregnancy. “What are you going to stand for? Tobacco growers or the sanctity of life?”

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Religious conservatives who condemn abortion face a glaring contradiction: Most refuse to speak out against the dangers tobacco poses to pregnancy.

In April 1995, the Journal of Family Practice published a study on the effects of smoking during pregnancy. Drawing upon dozens of previous studies, the authors estimated that not only does smoking dramatically increase the chances of low birth weight and sudden infant death syndrome, but it also causes between 19,000 and 141,000 “spontaneous abortions,” or miscarriages, with a “best estimate” of about 115,000 of them per year.

ABC News asked a number of pro-life lawmakers to comment on the tobacco-abortion story. When they refused, the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, executive director of the pro-life Christian Defense Coalition, blasted them on the air. “It’s hypocrisy,” said Mahoney, who lost his mother, a heavy smoker, to cancer. “Those of us in the pro-life movement need to call them out on that and say, ‘What are you going to stand for? Tobacco growers or the sanctity of life?'”

Nearly a year later, after lobbying six major pro-life groups to take on tobacco, Mahoney says he’s gotten “nowhere.” He ticks off the excuses he’s heard: “That’s not our issue…. We’re so involved right now with A, B, C, and D….We’ll take a look and see.” In short, he says, “Your common, polite blow-off.”

A number of activists Mahoney confronted pleaded that the FDA shouldn’t be entrusted with the regulation of tobacco. Mahoney reminded them that they had recently endorsed a petition demanding tight FDA restrictions on RU486, the French abortion pill. “Pro-life people are already on record asking the FDA to intervene to protect unborn children from a drug,” he notes. “So why not tobacco?”

Mahoney also finds it curious that while his colleagues show little interest in smoking-induced miscarriages, they are preoccupied with legislation to outlaw late-term “partial-birth” abortions. “The partial-birth bill…would only save 1,000 lives a year,” observes Mahoney, whereas targeting tobacco’s effect on pregnancy “could save 100,000 lives a year.”

Pro-choice activists are leery of incorporating pro- lifers into the tobacco-control movement. “Their agenda has been to deny women control of their own bodies,” warns Lynn Paltrow of the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy. “Given that history, the anti-abortion movement is likely not to hold the industry accountable, but to blame individual women.” But Bill Godshall, the pro-choice executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania, sees common ground. “Shouldn’t pro-choice people be concerned about the wanted babies that are being hurt by tobacco smoke?” he asks. “This is a pro-choice and a pro-life issue.”

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