targeting crack babies through information

Crack Facts

Crack Myths

Crack Babies

The start of the 'crack baby' myth
How does the myth hurt babies and their mothers?

Crack babies used to increase support for a harsher War on Drugs
Crack babies used by anti-abortionists
Prosecution of crack smoking mothers and criminalization of pregnancy
“C.R.A.C.K” – An illiberal and coercive organization
Crack babies: In conclusion


The start of the 'crack baby' myth

Dr Ira Chasnoff, in a 1985 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, first raised concerns about cocaine-exposed infants.  His preliminary research and tentative findings expressed concern that cocaine use by pregnant women could lead to developmental problems for the infants.  Cocaine use by pregnant women can have limited negative effects on infants, but these are neither life-threatening nor any more significant than effects from the use of other licit and illicit drugs.  Indeed, cocaine exposure is less significant than environmental factors such as the amount of pre-natal care, poor health and poverty.   Dr Chasnoff’s study did not refer to crack; his research was based on the intranasal use of cocaine by pregnant women.  It was a media decision to focus on crack. 

The effects of crack (and cocaine) as an individual substance on babies or fetuses are notoriously difficult to pin down.  This is because women who use crack often use a variety of other substances, and tend to have a lower socio-economic status, all factors that affect a child’s development.  Unlike alcohol, powder cocaine or crack use during pregnancy has no direct effects that allow it to be classified as a ‘syndrome,’ like the highly damaging Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

In February 2004, prompted by the use of the term ‘crack baby’ in a legal case about abused children, 30 leading pediatricians and medical experts published a letter in an attempt to set the record straight.  This open letter to the press was unequivocal in stating that the terms ‘crack baby’, ‘crack addicted baby’ and others like ‘ice baby’ or ‘meth baby’ “…lack scientific validity and should not be used”.

These experts go on to say: “Throughout almost 20 years of research, none of us has identified a recognizable condition, syndrome or disorder that should be termed ‘crack baby’.  Some of our published research finds subtle effects of prenatal cocaine exposure in selected developmental domains, while other of our research publications do not.  This is in contrast to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which has narrow and specific criteria for diagnosis.”

Among the signatories to the letter was Dr Ira Chasnoff whose initial research sparked the ‘crack baby’ myth.

___________

(Cocaine Use in Pregnancy, IJ Chasanoff, WJ Burns, SH Scholl, KA Burns, New England Journal of Medicine 1985 Vol 313, No. 11, pp666-669)

(Open Letter to the Media, February 25, 2004)

(Click here for more information on FAS)

The full letter, in pdf format, is available for download here.


(Top)

_____________________________________________________________


How does the myth hurt babies and their mothers?

The myth of the crack baby was built upon the premise that pregnant women who smoked crack exposed their babies to the same effects of intoxication as they themselves felt.  Due to a fetus’s fragile state of development in the womb, these effects supposedly led to developmental disabilities and psychological trauma throughout the life of the child. Equally, it was believed babies born to mothers addicted to crack would also be addicted.

Dr. Claire Coles, a psychologist specializing in fetal damage working at Emory University Medical School, was one of the experts frequently contacted by newspapers for information on the ‘crack baby’ phenomenon.  When her measured response failed to provide the kind of quotes the journalists were after, she was dropped as a source.  Dr. Coles began to notice various worrying features of the news coverage.  She realized the babies filmed in news broadcasts as supposedly suffering from ‘cocaine withdrawal’ were no such thing.  Cocaine, a stimulant, has very few withdrawal symptoms, and these limited reactions would result in drowsiness, not the frenzied crying displayed on the news.  In fact, film crews were filming children exposed to heroin and attributing its effects to crack.

___________

(Dr. Coles’ experience is discussed in the book Smoke and Mirrors, Dan Baum, 1996, pp 217-218)


(Top)

_____________________________________________________________


Crack babies used to increase support for a harsher War on Drugs

In the War on Drugs, the concept of the ‘crack baby’ was used to drum up support for harsher sentences and stricter prohibition. As Wendy Chavkin describes; “the ‘crack baby’ [became] a convenient symbol for an aggressive war on drug users because of the implication that anyone who is selfish enough to irreparably damage an innocent child for the sake of a quick high deserves retribution.”

In his 1989 Washington Post article “Children of Cocaine,” Charles Krauthammer admits that white, middle-class women use cocaine more frequently than black, poor women do.  He also admits that money and environment overcome many of the problems of a substance-exposed child.  Unfortunately, Krauthammer does not point that perhaps the government should be focused on providing adequate health care and living circumstances for poor mothers.  Instead, he simply furthers the crack baby myth.

___________

(Wendy Chavkin, MD, MPH: “Cocaine and Pregnancy – time to look at the evidence”, JAMA, March 28, 2001, Vol. 285, No12, pp1626-1628)

(Charles Krauthammer, “Children of Cocaine”, Washington Post, July 30, 1989)


(Top)

_____________________________________________________________


Crack babies used by anti-abortionists

The ‘crack baby’ myth was also embraced by anti-abortion activists.  The basis for the attack on crack smoking mothers was that they were harming their fetus, which the anti-abortionists claimed had separate, divisible rights from those of its mother. The language used in court cases attempting to punish mothers for pre-natal drug use borrows heavily from the anti-abortion rhetoric of groups such as the National Right to Life Committee.  For anti-abortionists intent on styling abortion as murder, the ‘crack baby’ provided a sympathetic image to advance the rights bestowed upon a fetus.


(Top)

_____________________________________________________________


Prosecution of crack smoking mothers and criminalization of pregnancy

In July, 1989, Jennifer Johnson became the first woman to be convicted of delivering drugs to a minor via the placenta.  Johnson’s conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, but the concept of putting women on trial for illegal acts towards their fetuses while pregnant was a hugely important step.  It gave the force of the law to the religious and political concept that a fetus’s rights were separable from those of the mother.  The historic decision in Roe v Wade, finding in the constitution that women have a right to have abortions before fetal viability, was being eroded. 

The policy of prosecuting pregnant, drug-using women was justified almost exclusively on the grounds that it would act as a deterrent to drug use.  In reality, however, a deterrent prosecution is of little use. As the dissenting Judge in the Johnson case stated: “...Possession of illegal drugs already results in criminal penalties and pregnant women who use illegal substances are obviously not deterred by existing sanctions. Thus the goal of deterrence is not served.”

There are virtually no treatment facilities available to help pregnant women address drug problems because many drug treatment programs fear being sued for any injuries to the mother or baby sustained in the course of delivery. For example, in New York City in 1990, 54% of drug treatment programs refused all pregnant women, 67% refused Medicaid patients and 84% refused crack addicted pregnant women.  These policies adversely affect poor, and often minority, women, and further endanger the health of the future child.

In Charleston, South Carolina, a policy was instituted in one public hospital which subjected women seeking obstetric treatment to a non-consensual drug test. The Medical University of South Carolina policy stated that a patient was to be tested if she complied with any one of a list of indicators. Those criteria were as follows:

1. No prenatal care
2. Late prenatal care after 24 weeks gestation
3. Incomplete prenatal care
4. Abruptio placentae
5. Intrauterine fetal death
6. Preterm labor ' of no obvious cause'
7. IUGR [intrauterine growth retardation] ' of no obvious cause'
8. Previously known drug or alcohol abuse
9. Unexplained congenital anomalies."

By targeting women who received little or no prenatal care, as the first three criteria do, the policy singled out the poorest women for testing.  Despite the fact that minority women use drugs less frequently than white women, this policy, by its focus on poverty, led to the disproportionate arrest and prosecution of African-Americans.  Of the women arrested as a result of a positive urine test under this regime, all but one were African-American.

Another law in South Carolina allows the prosecution of women for murder if they give birth to a stillborn baby whose death may have been linked to substance abuse.  Regina McKnight, a drug addicted mother, gave birth to a stillborn child in 1999.  Five months after the event she was arrested and convicted of murder.  In 2003 her conviction and sentence of 12 years imprisonment was upheld by the US Supreme Court.  In McKnight’s case it was not taken into account that she had had no chance to try and overcome her addiction – no offers of treatment were made prior to the birth.  McKnight, with an IQ of 72, was not aware that her cocaine use might affect her child.  In fact, amicus briefs submitted from a wide variety of medical associations showed that there could have been several other reasons for the still birth, not just the use of drugs. 

These prosecutions do not truly protect children.  A mother under threat of prosecution for an addiction is unlikely to seek prenatal care when the care providers are agents of the police, therefore putting her fetus at further risk.  She is also more likely to seek an abortion rather than give birth to a child whose existence can form the basis of a charge against her.  Finally, even if a child is born safely, these babies are taken away from their mothers and placed in foster care, an act that can be quite damaging.

___________

(Jennifer Clarice Johnson, Petitioner, vs. State of Florida, Respondent 1992 Fla. LEXIS 1296)

(Roe v Wade 410 US 113 (1973))

(Sharp, W, J in a dissenting judgment in the Court of Appeal of Florida case Johnson v. State of Florida, 578 So. 2d 419; 1991 Fla. App. LEXIS 3583; 16 Fla. L. Weekly D 1053.)

(Study conducted by Dr. Wendy Chavkin, “Drug Addiction and Pregnancy: Policy Crossroads”, American Journal of Public Health, 80, no.4 (April 1990) pp.483-487.)

(The State of South Carolina v. Regina McKnight (2003); Appeal in State Supreme Court)


(Top)

_____________________________________________________________


“C.R.A.C.K” – An illiberal and coercive organization

In 1997 Barbara Harris of Anaheim, California founded an organization called Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (C.R.A.C.K.). Harris, supposedly aiming to prevent the birth of what she calls ‘damaged babies’ to mothers addicted to drugs, offers addicted women $200 in return for their sterilization or agreement to use certain semi-permanent forms of birth control such as Norplant®.  She states:
“We don’t allow dogs to breed. We spay them. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted puppies, but these women are literally having litters of children”.

This is a movement aimed at blaming a victim rather than addressing the root of the problem:

  • Harris appears not to have considered that addiction may be treatable.
  • Harris has not addressed the opportunities that are denied these women. The answer to these problems is not sterilization, but physical and mental healthcare, education, employment and societal change.
  • Harris has not considered that the ‘expensive’ problems she associates with children born to drug addicted women, such as their need for foster care and special attention in schools, may equally be associated with poverty as it is with drug use. Hopefully, she is not suggesting the sterilization of poor people simply for their poverty.
  • Harris has not considered the health of the women she ‘treats’. Not only is she taking advantage of their poverty to induce a contraceptive solution through offers of cash, but the very contraceptives she offers can be inherently problematic. Strong chemical methods of contraception like Norplant® require consistent follow-up examinations by physicians, yet these are not offered as part of C.R.A.C.K.’s package. Perhaps even more importantly, these methods of contraception do not protect against STDs, putting women at risk of HIV, hepatitis C and many other illnesses.

C.R.A.C.K. attempts to neutralize the problem only in terms of its impact on the taxpayer, before sending the women back into self-destructive lifestyles with nothing but $200 – little more than enough for one long drug binge.

___________

(“Cracking Open CRACK: Unethical Sterilization Movement Gains Momentum,” Judith M. Scully, Differentakes (Hampshire College), No. 2, Spring 2000)


(Top)

_____________________________________________________________


Crack babies: In conclusion

  • The scientific research does not bear out the idea that crack alone is responsible for a specific ‘syndrome’ caused pre-natal exposure to the drug.
  • Scientists themselves have unequivocally rejected the concept of ‘crack babies’ as both unscientific and socially damaging.
  • Media reports have sensationalized the myth; the public often only sees the negative gloss, not the substantive truth.
  • Children suffering from physical and psychological problems, whatever their cause, suffer more from being stigmatized by an association with crack use.   Saddled with a negative label from birth, a child is going to find it even more difficult to achieve his or her potential.
  • The label of ‘crack baby’ has allowed many politicians and members of the public to avoid addressing the underlying issues of poverty and deprivation.
  • The myth allows for mothers to be attacked as evil, again diverting attention from the issues of addiction and poverty.  It is further ignored that there are simply no options for an addicted pregnant woman to help herself.


(Top)
_____________________________________________________________

 

 

Tel: 301-589-6020
Fax: 301-589-5056
8730 Georgia Avenue, Suite 400
Silver Spring, MD 20910-3649
 
Eric E. Sterling, President
2006