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Just Say No? Prescription Drug Use Uncertain for Pregnant Women

Since the 1960s, the medical community has known that prescription drug use may be harmful to a pregnant woman's fetus. That's when it was first understood that medicines taken by a pregnant woman pass through her placenta, ultimately leading to the risk of harm to the unborn baby. Progress since the 1960s, however, has been limited at best.

Federal groups have been unable to clearly outline prescription drugs that are likely to cause birth defects in infants. Without that information, pregnant women are left to question every medicine they take and worry about the cost to their baby.

Furthermore, a doctor who is aware of the risks of a prescription drug but fails to warn a pregnant woman may be liable for medical malpractice for that failure. A pharmacist may also fail to warn a pregnant woman or may fill the prescription incorrectly, resulting in a serious medication error. These are all significant concerns for pregnant women in the United States.

Toxic Drugs and Their Effects on a Fetus

Based on numerous studies, approximately 64 percent of women take prescription drugs during pregnancy. Some take only one during pregnancy, but on average, women take three to four prescription drugs. That's because women get sick while they are pregnant and sick women get pregnant.

The following is a list of some prescription drugs that could present a risk of harm to fetuses, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Haldol
  • Zyprexa
  • Seroquel
  • Abilify
  • Topamax
  • Vicodin
  • OxyContin
  • Tylenol with codeine
  • Lithium

Birth defects caused by these drugs include heart defects, difficulty breathing, withdrawal symptoms, glaucoma and cleft palate or cleft lips.

Inability to Test Prescription Drugs Creates Reporting Problem

While this short list provides an overview of potentially harmful prescription drugs, it is nowhere near conclusive. That's because prescription drug studies involving pregnant women are unethical. Clinical trials do not include pregnant women to prevent birth defects.

Information is limited on most prescription drugs' effects on pregnant women and their fetuses. In many cases, the decision to take a prescription drug is a personal one that a pregnant woman makes after consulting with her doctor. The FDA has provided a pregnancy risk chart, but the categories of drugs are often confusing and inconclusive.

Antacids, aspirin, ibuprofen and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are all examples of medicine that studies have shown to cause harm to some babies. But study results are generally inconclusive or unclear, meaning the decision to take the drug becomes a personal choice.

Doctors must stay informed of new studies involving pregnant women who have elected to report on the effects of the drugs they are taking. This updated medical information is often critical to prevent harm to the mother and child.

All of the confusion surrounding prescription and over-the-counter drugs during pregnancy makes taking medicine a difficult decision. In many cases, if it's avoidable, a pregnant woman should not take any medication. If the medication is necessary, then the woman should carefully consult with her doctor to determine the best option available on the market.

Causes of Legal Action After Birth Defects and Birth Injuries

When prescription or over-the-counter medication use results in serious birth defects, parents of the child may take legal action to hold the responsible party accountable for the harm caused.

  • Product liability suit: If a drug manufacturer or pharmaceutical company manufactures or advertises a drug that is harmful to pregnant women or their fetuses, anyone injured may be able to file suit. The product liability suit may be viable only if there were no proper warnings or clear side-effect information.
  • Medical malpractice suit: A medical malpractice suit might be the legal option if a doctor failed to follow the standard of care in prescribing medication to a pregnant woman who was harmed by the medicine. Doctors and all medical professionals have a duty to inform patients of the risks associated with drug use during pregnancy.
  • Pharmaceutical medication error suit: Pharmacists and pharmacies must also take care to warn pregnant women of potential risks. Medication errors or incorrect medications that harm the baby can provide cause for legal action against the pharmacist.

To understand all of the legal actions available after a birth defect caused by prescription medication, it is important to consult with an experienced birth injury or birth defect lawyer.


Located in Philadelphia, Silvers, Langsam & Weitzman, P.C., home of MyPhillyLawyer, serves clients in Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, and throughout the United States.

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