In the 1980s and 1990s, the media went crazy over “crack babies,” kids whose lives were irreversibly ruined by mothers addicted to crack during their pregnancies. The hype resulted in a number of awful, reactionary laws, including more mandatory minimums, and drug testing in maternity wards, which could result in new mothers losing their children and facing criminal charges.
Of course addicted newborns need more treatment and care, and no one would argue that it isn’t tragic when it happens. But the stories tended to be overly sensational, opting for shock and worst-case scenarios over a sober assessment of the problem.
It wasn’t the first time the media had bought into propaganda aimed at dehumanizing drug offenders. In 1972, the New York Times ran a six-page feature on “heroin babies.” The Times article described in lurid detail a trembling, clenching newborn — “a tiny rat of a thing” —who scratches and claws at his own skin. It included an illustration of an alien-looking fetus getting a fix, with the caption, “An artist’s conception of the elements in a growing form of urban tragedy: a newborn child, and a glassine bag of heroin.”
The Times painted the mothers as indifferent, zombified monsters who “have no joy of motherhood.” Without even an anecdote, much less empirical data, the article reported that some mothers inject their babies with heroin to stop them from crying and that, “It is apparently not even uncommon for an addict to sell her children for drug money.” Helpfully, the article noted that “Almost always the mothers are from the black, Puerto Rican, and slum areas of town.”
Were there any long-term effects? The author couldn’t say. It was impossible to follow up because of the “fractured” and “disorganized” nature of “for example, some areas of Harlem.”
Not racist enough? The article went on: “Some of the women are so badly disturbed that their behavior resembles that of the famous motherless monkeys of Dr. Harry F. Harlow’s study.” The author then describes a study in which monkeys raised without mothers would sometimes “throw the baby against the wall or beat its head on the floor until the staff feared for the infant monkey’s life.”
In 2009, the Times ran an article on a series of long-term studies of “crack babies.” The studies found that not only did children born to addicted mothers not encounter the much-hyped physical and developmental problems, but in many cases, the biggest obstacle the children faced was the stigma that came with being called a “crack baby.”
Showing that the media never seems to learn from its mistakes, we’ve recently seen scare stories about “Oxy babies,” such as this one from USA Today in which politicians proclaim their fears — apparently without irony — that these infants will turn into the next crack baby epidemic.
And let’s not forget the “meth babies.”
From the article Great Moments in Drug War Propaganda, by Radley Balko
Image: Time Magazine
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