Good News: 1980s 'Crack Babies' Epidemic Was Hugely Overblown

The narrative of the "crack epidemic" came to be a subject of frenzied media discourse in the 1980s. The pregnant crack-addicted body, in particular, became a location of acute panic — the media fixated on the idea of the "crack baby," the innocent soul born addicted to cocaine who, according to claims, was three times more likely to suffer from developmental issues as well as a slew of birth defects, including hypertension, strokes, cerebral palsy, and sudden infant death syndrome.

As shown in a recent New York Times video investigation, one newscaster described "crack babies" as a new "underclass of children unable to care for themselves, of infants born to suffer," and another labeled them as "the most expensive babies born in America," doomed to "overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come in contact with for the rest of their lives."

How accurate were these predictions? According to the NYT, not at all. The alleged "epidemic" was extrapolated from a preliminary study of just 23 infants. However, that didn't stop one reporter from alleging a 500 percent increase in damaged babies, nor did it prevent the findings from being used to charge pregnant crack users with child abuse and murder.


"It became an exciting thing to talk about," says Dr. Claire Coles of the Emory University School of Medicine and Pediatrics. "As it got out into the world, it became this phenomenon." According to Dr. Coles, typical "crack baby" symptoms (tremors, low birth weight, seizures) are more indicative of prematurity than of drug exposure. She argues that cocaine was only part of a larger problem, not its sole cause, so targeting cocaine and cocaine alone wasn't helpful. Alcohol use during pregnancy, for instance, is much more severe and damaging to the unborn — not to mention far more ubiquitous.

Coles' findings were ignored, however, because they didn't fit into cultural stereotypes and failed to feed the media narrative. Reporters railed about an estimated $5 billion annual strain on the government, and everyone got extremely worked up because the concept of the "crack baby" plays into sadly familiar ideas of race and class. Since crack was relatively inexpensive and far more prevalent in poor areas, it was convenient to use this fear to justify classist and racist rhetoric (i.e., "poor, black neighborhoods bring their problems onto themselves and cost the rest of us by doing so"). The use of any mind-altering drug while pregnant should be discouraged. We shouldn't single one substance out and demonize it simply because rich white people are less likely to be caught with it.

Here's some uplifting proof that the science doesn't necessarily prove true: Devin Stone, who was interviewed in the film, was exposed to crack in the womb. Her mantra growing up was: "I'm not going to make this an issue. Whatever I have to do to get around whatever the effects will be, I'll do that." She went on to be the first person in her family to graduate college.

"Revisiting the 'Crack Babies' Epidemic That Was Not" [NYT]

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You know how some high school classes have those realistic crying dolls for kids to "practice" being a parent on? My school had crack baby dolls. Their crying was way more annoying and frequent than the regular dolls, and much more difficult to turn off. I remember thinking that it was really weird that we had to take crack dolls instead of the regular ones. This was in the late 90s, so it wasn't even at the height of the crack baby epidemic fear.