Like other patients, pregnant women can suffer conditions that require treatment with prescription drugs. Unlike other patients, expectant mothers can present a dilemma to their care providers. Many medications pose harm to the developing fetus or have not been tested for safety in pregnant women. Physicians who prescribe drugs that cause damage to a mother or child may be liable for medical malpractice.

The Placental Barrier and Drug Transfer

The placenta is an organ that forms in and attaches to a pregnant woman’s uterus. It connects the developing fetus to the mother’s body via the umbilical cord. The organ creates a pathway allowing nutrients and oxygen from the mother’s bloodstream to reach the fetus. Once this connection is established, the fetus is also exposed to nearly everything the mother ingests.

Because of this, pregnant women are often advised by their prenatal care team to avoid things that can endanger the growth, health, and development of the fetus. These potential hazards include smoking, drinking alcohol, being exposed to chemicals or contaminants like lead, and consuming unpasteurized foods.

Many drugs can cross the placental barrier, exposing the fetus to their effects. The impact of these drugs varies widely depending on the type, dosage, timing during pregnancy, and the individual characteristics of both the mother and the fetus. While some medications are essential and safe, others can lead to serious, sometimes life-threatening, consequences for the unborn child.

Teratogens and Their Impact

Teratogens are substances that can cause congenital anomalies if a woman is exposed to them during pregnancy. Several drugs are known teratogens, and their use during pregnancy can lead to serious developmental issues. Notable examples include:

  • Thalidomide. Although thalidomide was never approved by the FDA, as many as 20,000 pregnant women in the U.S. took the drug in the 1950s and early 1960s as part of two clinical trials. Tragically, it caused severe limb deformities in thousands of babies, leading to stricter drug regulations and increased awareness of teratogenic risks.
  • Isotretinoin. Commonly used to treat severe acne, isotretinoin (Accutane) is highly teratogenic, causing significant damage to a developing baby’s brain, heart, and face. Women of childbearing age are required to use effective contraception and undergo regular pregnancy tests while taking this medication.
  • Antiepileptic drugs (AEDs). Certain AEDs, such as valproate, are associated with an increased risk of neural tube defects, heart defects, and cognitive impairments. Pregnant women with epilepsy must work closely with their healthcare providers to balance seizure control and fetal safety.

New research can reveal dangerous side effects of drugs previously considered safe. Individuals injured by these drugs may be able to recover compensation in a product liability lawsuit against the drug’s manufacturer. Consult with an attorney to learn more about your options.

Commonly Prescribed Drugs and Associated Risks

While some drugs pose obvious danger to pregnant patients, others present more nuanced risks. Some medications are commonly prescribed during pregnancy, even though they can have problematic side effects. These include:

  • Antibiotics. Many antibiotics are safe, but some, like tetracyclines, can cause teeth discoloration and affect fetal bone growth. Healthcare providers often prescribe safer alternatives like penicillin and cephalosporins when necessary.
  • Antidepressants. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often prescribed for depression. Some studies suggest a link between SSRI use in pregnancy and a slight increase in the risk of congenital disabilities and pulmonary hypertension in newborns. However, untreated depression also poses significant risks, necessitating a careful risk-benefit analysis.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs such as ibuprofen are generally avoided in the third trimester due to the risk of premature closure of the fetal ductus arteriosus and potential kidney issues in the baby. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is usually recommended as a safer alternative for pain relief.
  • Blood pressure medications. Hypertension in pregnancy can lead to complications like preeclampsia. While some blood pressure medications, such as ACE inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers, are contraindicated due to their potential to cause fetal renal damage and other anomalies, alternatives like methyldopa and labetalol are considered safer.

Mitigating Risks: The Role of Healthcare Providers

The key to mitigating the risks associated with drug use during pregnancy is informed decision-making and close collaboration between healthcare providers and pregnant women. Healthcare professionals play a crucial role in:

  • Risk assessment. Care providers should evaluate the potential benefits and risks of medications, considering the health of both the mother and the fetus.
  • Alternative treatments. Whenever possible, doctors should consider non-pharmacological treatments or safer medication alternatives.
  • Patient education. Prenatal providers must ensure that pregnant women understand the risks associated with specific medications and the importance of adhering to prescribed treatments.
  • Monitoring and adjustments. Medical providers should regularly monitor the health of the mother and fetus and adjust treatment plans as necessary.

Liability for Harm Due to Prescription Drugs

Prenatal care providers must carefully balance treating a pregnant woman’s health conditions and safeguarding the developing baby. While some medications can cause harm, the judicious use of safer alternatives and thorough risk assessment can minimize these risks.

Ongoing research and enhanced regulatory measures continue to improve our understanding of drug safety in pregnancy. Open communication and a collaborative approach between expectant mothers and their healthcare providers are essential in navigating this complex aspect of prenatal care.

If your child suffered harm due to prescription drugs you took during your pregnancy, you may be able to recover compensation. Speaking to an experienced Michigan medical malpractice attorney can help you understand your rights and explore your options to recover the compensation you deserve.

Matthew Curtis

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Matthew Curtis

Matthew Curtis is a senior shareholder and member of the Board of Directors at Sommers Schwartz, P.C. For the past 30 years, he has successfully litigated complex personal injury and medical malpractice cases throughout Michigan, and across the United States.