Radio

Ice, Ice Baby

Infant speed freaks?

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In July the Minneapolis Star Tribune described "meth babies" as "cranky and difficult to soothe." No wonder they're cranky: According to a March CNN report, they're "hooked on meth and suffering the pangs of withdrawal"; a June 2004 story on Minnesota Public Radio likewise spoke of babies "born addicted to meth." And those are the lucky ones. A November 2004 story in the Star Tribune cited a nurse who "heard of a meth baby born with an arm growing out of the neck and another who was missing a femur."

For scientists who watched in dismay as the news media stirred up alarm about "crack babies" in the late 1980s and early '90s, such accounts have a familiar ring. Careful research ultimately refuted the crack baby stereotype, showing that children prenatally exposed to cocaine were virtually indistinguishable from nonexposed children born in similar circumstances; the media panic had been rooted in rumors and biased observations. But that reassessment came after children born to cocaine users were stigmatized as dramatically and permanently damaged, while their mothers were singled out for special condemnation and punishment.

This time around, critics are hoping to intervene before the meth baby stories take hold. "Stigmatizing terms, such as 'ice babies' and 'meth babies,' lack scientific validity and should not be used," said a group of nearly 100 physicians, researchers, and addiction specialists in an open letter to the news media released in late July. "Although research on the medical and developmental effects of prenatal methamphetamine exposure is still in its early stages, our experience with almost 20 years of research on a chemically related drug, cocaine, has not identified a recognizable condition, syndrome or disorder that should be termed 'crack baby' [or] found the degree of harm reported in the media."

The letter cautioned against relying on "people who lack any scientific experience or expertise" for information about methamphetamine's effects, as when The New York Times, in a February 2004 article, quoted a police captain who declared that "meth makes crack look like child's play." The scientists also noted that no withdrawal syndrome has been documented in babies exposed to cocaine or methamphetamine in utero. And since addiction involves continued use of a drug despite negative consequences, they wrote, "by definition, babies cannot be 'addicted' to methamphetamines or anything else."