In the new Retro Report web series, “Revisiting the ‘crack babies’ epidemic that was not,” writes Michael Winerip.
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.
The worrisome extrapolations made by researchers — including the one who first published disturbing findings about prenatal cocaine use — were only part of the problem. Major newspapers and magazines, including Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The Washington Post and The New York Times, ran articles and columns that went beyond the research. Network TV stars of that era, including Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, also bear responsibility for broadcasting uncritical reports.
A much more serious problem, it turns out, is infants who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
The Retro Report video can be seen at NYT website, click here. The title of this third installment by the new “documentary news organization”, in collaboration with The Times is, “Crack Babies: A Tale from the Drug Wars: Retro Report: In the 1980’s, many government officials, scientists and journalists warned that the country would be plagued by a generation of ‘crack babies’.
“They were wrong,” this Retro Report concludes.
That’s not the first thing that officials have been wrong about. But, what is it about our willingness to embrace such limiting beliefs about fellow humans? In the video, Dr. Claire Coles of Emory University said, “As it got out into the world, it became this phenomenon.”
Dr. Ira Chaznoff’s study of 23 babies born to addicted mothers led to a media circus and many arrests that led to the incarceration of pregnant mothers who used drugs. This legally enforced separation between mothers and children did more harm than the mothers who used cocaine during pregnancy had, in my opinion.
As a culture, we swallowed the “crack baby” myth hook, line and sinker. We wanted the simple answer. We began to fear mothers who abused cocaine. We judged them for causing harm to their children. And this was all based on information from one study on 23 babies that led to the prediction that exposure to cocaine in the womb would be permanently debilitating for children. Turns out, we were wrong.
The Retro Report includes a similar study that was being carried out by Dr. Coles at Emory University at the same time, but one with a different finding. Dr. Coles said, “The effects didn’t seem consistent with the effects of the drug itself.”
“Many of the children who were the so called, classic cocaine babies, were premature babies,” she says.
“And, the symptoms that were seen on video and television,” like hand tremors, were in fact the same as those seen in all premature babies.
Dr. Coles “narrative” didn’t fit the “national” one, therefore her infant study wasn’t given near the amount of exposure by the press.
Dr. Coles states that, “Alcohol is much more of a problem than cocaine, because there’s much more alcohol used, and it has much more severe effects.”
“And, I think there are certain ideas that people really want to believe, that really fit in with cultural stereotypes, and it’s hard to get rid of those,” Dr. Coles concludes.