Monday, May 20, 2013

Cultural Narratives, Cultural Lies

This story, "Revisiting The 'Crack Babies' Epidemic That Wasn't," was linked by Erik Loomis off LG&M this morning.

It's a NYTimes story, so if you've used up your quota for the month, you might not be able to get to it (though I've heard there are work-arounds).

But the key point is a brief one, though you should certainly read the story and watch the linked video if you can.  It is that the crack baby epidemic that those of us who came up in the 80's and early 90's remember so much hysteria being raised about -- those crack babies that were going to overwhelm our country, destroy our educational system, turn our nation into Escape From New York -- well, they didn't exist.

The entire media frenzy was based on one study of 23 babies, whose symptoms (another researcher, who did the follow-up study notes) could equally well be explained as caused by the fact that the infants were born prematurely and to malnourished mothers.

Furthermore, thirty years on, the 23 infants in the initial study aren't showing anything like the dire predictions the initial study foretold.  (Also, no huge epidemic of crack babies has overwhelmed our nation, obviously.)

So why was the media -- and our country -- so willing to buy into this crack baby story?

Yeah, you guessed it.  Those People who were using crack, they were poor and they were black and they were doing drugs instead of working and they were having babies and they were going to expect Us to Take Care of Them!!

That story again.

Why does it matter?  Well, crack babies were one of the reasons the War on Drugs got stepped up to the extent it did; and two, crack babies were one of the big reasons it became acceptable to prosecute pregnant women for child abuse, under the theory that they were abusing their fetuses by doing drugs.

And, despite the fact that the evidence does not exist to support the claim that doing drugs while pregnant harms the fetus, and despite the fact that poverty is much more harmful to a fetus than drug use could ever be (not to mention much more harmful to actual existing children), this practice continues.


Tree of Knowledge said...

Have you read Susan Douglas's Mommy Myth? She talks about this in a chapter, and she has one on the satanist daycare centers too (do you remember all of those stories?). It's a really good study of how journalism/media uses motherhood to control and oppress women.

J. Otto Pohl said...

I am pretty sure that drug abuse can damage unborn children. I am not sure which drugs, how much is needed, and how often damage occurs, however. Certainly fetal alcohol syndrome is a very real thing.

delagar said...

I know that's what we've been told, Otto. I also know that very little of the public reaction is based on solid research.

For instance: FAS (fetal alcohol sydrome) can result when a pregnant woman consumes 18 or more ounces of alcohol *per* *day* while pregnant. If a pregnant woman consumes 18 or more ounces of alcohol per day while pregnant, her child has a 33% chance of being born with FAS. (And, therefore, a 66% chance of being perfectly fine.)

Therefore, every pregnant woman (and by some people's standard, every fertile woman on the planet) gets told not to drink anything alcoholic at all ever -- because that's endangering her child.

And this is true for every other intoxicant and every drug and every other thing on the planet, basically. Any pregnant woman gets policed because anything she does is potentially a criminal act.

And yes, this is oppressive. It is especially used to oppress poor and brown women. (Rich white upper class women never end up going to jail or court because they've been drinking or smoking dope white pregnant.)

J. Otto Pohl said...

I was very happy that my wife quit drinking and smoking when she got pregnant with our daughter. I don't think her giving up cigarettes and beer was oppression on the basis that we were poor and she is brown.

delagar said...

I also gave up drinking when I was pregnant, Otto. That was my personal choice. I did not feel oppressed.

But in Mississippi and Alabama and in other places, poor women and brown women are being jailed for drinking and for using drugs (including marijuana, for which there is no known health risk AFAIK) while pregnant. One young woman has been charged with murder because she miscarried, though no connection to her drug use can be shown.

So yes, there is in fact actual oppression of actual women happening over these issues.

And that does not count the micro-aggressions inflected on countless women -- I did give up drinking of my own free will, and I assume your wife did too. But what if we had not? Would the world have treated us well, do you suppose?

I submit to you that (at least here in the USA) we would have gotten endless harassment had we "chosen" to continue drinking during our pregnancies.

J. Otto Pohl said...

My fear of a retarded child was so great that I think I would have had real problems if my wife hadn't quit drinking. In Kyrgyzstan drinking usually means binge drinking since they picked up the habit from the Russians. So there was pressure by me, but it didn't have to be much to convince her.

Some Girl said...

Interesting post.

I want to clarify - you wrote that "...the evidence does not exist to support the claim that doing drugs while pregnant harms the fetus." Evidence DEFINITELY exists that various prescribed drugs affect fetuses. My family has been significantly affected by birth defects caused by morning sickness medication prescribed to pregnant relatives (the drug is off the market due to this). Then, of course, there are severely deformed babies born to women who take Accutane while pregnant. Some drugs can and do absolutely cause birth defects.

It's important to be particular with language. While I think you were referring to recreational drugs, I wanted to make sure that the statement wasn't conflating all drugs.

delagar said...

Some Girl -- good point. There *are* drugs that are actual teratogens, which shouldn't be used while pregnant.