Instead of learning from the unfounded hysteria of the crack baby era, we’re repeating it.
In 1985, as crack cocaine use was surging in American cities, the New England Journal of Medicine published a provocative study. Based on preliminary data from 23 women who’d used cocaine while pregnant, the study yielded a rash of news stories suggesting that cocaine use during pregnancy could lead to birth defects and developmental disorders. In time, more studies, many of them failing to account for the effects of poverty and poor prenatal care, led to op-eds and outrage over a generation of so-called crack babies. They would have lowered IQs and be unable to feel love, potty-train, or dress themselves—a “bio-underclass” of black children facing lives of “certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority.” Starting in the mid ’80s, hundreds of women were arrested for using cocaine and other drugs while pregnant, even though the majority gave birth to healthy babies. Thirty women at a hospital in South Carolina, almost all of them black, were surreptitiously tested for cocaine use (some still pregnant, others having just delivered) and arrested, several still dressed in their hospital gowns and bleeding from labor.
As we now know, the mass hysteria over “crack babies” and their deviant mothers was unfounded. Crack cocaine doesn’t do the kind of damage we thought it did to developing babies. It can lead to “small but measurable differences on certain neuropsychological tests,” Boston University professor of pediatrics Deborah Frank says, but nothing like the devastating effects that researchers and the press predicted. Cocaine use during pregnancy is about equivalent to tobacco in terms of its effect on the fetus, and a lot less harmful than heavy alcohol use, says Frank. Unfortunately, instead of learning from this heady mix of bad science, a sensationalist press, over-reaching prosecutors, and the narrative of the selfish mother content to damage her baby, we’re repeating it.
Repeating it and worse. Ten years ago, “meth babies” were supposed to “make the crack baby look like a walk in the nursery,” and when that scourge failed to materialize, we got “oxytots,” as Fox News charmingly dubbed the children born dependent to prescription opioids like Oxycontin. According to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, there were 413 arrests or forced interventions of pregnant women between 1973 and 2005, most involving allegations of drug use and charges of child abuse or neglect. Since 2005, the group has tracked 380, a stunning ramping-up in the last decade. The rise has coincided with a raft of states passing anti-abortion legislation, and that’s no coincidence. By cementing the idea that a woman and her fetus have divergent rights and interests, these arrests are helping the anti-abortion cause.
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