Originally Published: Slate • December 7, 2014
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…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. 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.