The war on drugs, fetal personhood, and the criminalization of pregnant women

The New York Times has a short documentary up exploring the construction of the “crack baby” epidemic – an epidemic that was largely built on racist media hype and flimsy science.

This week’s Retro Report video on “crack babies” (infants born to addicted mothers) lays out how limited scientific studies in the 1980s led to predictions that a generation of children would be damaged for life. Those predictions turned out to be wrong. This supposed epidemic — one television reporter talks of a 500 percent increase in damaged babies — was kicked off by a study of just 23 infants that the lead researcher now says was blown out of proportion. And the shocking symptoms — like tremors and low birth weight — are not particular to cocaine-exposed babies, pediatric researchers say; they can be seen in many premature newborns.

What was just a very preliminary observational study turned into a widespread social panic about “crack babies,” children who would supposedly suffer extreme physical and cognitive deficiencies as a direct result of the use of crack cocaine. Ultimately, this was found not to be the case at all – rather, other issues correlated with drug use (such as lack of access to healthy foods, for example) were the main culprit in the health complications these babies faced. But the story fed into the racialized narrative of the war on drugs, and because crack use was most prevalent in urban communities of color, the media, legislators, and the general public quickly demonized low-income mothers of color struggling with substance abuse.  Legislators enacted some of the harshest penalties for low-level drug offenses for crack, and to this day there is a huge disparity between sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine – a drug much more prevalent with wealthy white users. Though the Fair Sentencing Act reduced this disparity and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of crack in 2010, the fact that there is a disparity at all is indicative of the ways that class and race play out in the drug sentencing and the criminal justice system.

Today, the legacy of these policies remains. Recent studies reveal the ways that these narratives, along with anti-choice policies such as fetal personhood initiatives, have resulted in widespread arrests and forced interventions among pregnant women – disproportionately low-income women, women in the South, and black women. Drug use still largely remains in the public imagination as an issue to be treated with punishment rather than health care, and harm reduction policies are controversial despite clear clinical evidence of their success as public health initiatives.

Go take a look at the ten-minute documentary, and stay updated on the work of organizations like National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who are working on the issues faced by drug-addicted pregnant women.

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