BOSTON, JUNE 6 -- Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan said today that pregnant women who use illicit drugs are committing child abuse and that parental rights should be taken away in the most serious cases.

The pregnant woman, the father of the child and others aware of the drug abuse should be held accountable for their actions, Sullivan said at a conference at Tufts Medical School. The conference was sponsored by the Genesis Fund, a nonprofit group that aids children born with birth defects.

"As a society, we must make certain that the man involved -- the father or other companion who supplies drugs or alcohol to the mother, or who simply stands by and does nothing -- that individual should also be held accountable for the damage done to a substance-exposed infant," Sullivan said. "Both parents created that life. Both parents must be held accountable for its welfare."

Many public health specialists strongly disagreed with Sullivan's characterization of drug use during pregnancy as child abuse, saying that the parents as well as the children are victims of substance abuse. They said statements such as Sullivan's could drive pregnant women further underground and keep them out of prenatal care.

"It is . . . ridiculous, grotesque public health policy," said Nancy Gertner, a lawyer who spoke at the meeting. Gertner recently represented a Waltham woman who was indicted for vehicular homicide in the drunken driving death of her 8 1/2-month-old fetus. The homicide charge was dropped.