Yesterday, in an article headlined "The Epidemic That Wasn't," The New York Times took a calm, measured look at the latest research on children who were exposed to cocaine in the womb. Instead of the mentally and socially retarded cripples predicted in the late 1980s early '90s, it finds kids very much like their non-cocaine-exposed peers. Researchers who try to control for confounding variables that tend to be associated with a mother's crack habit find that there may be some subtle lingering effects, but nothing like the devastating lifelong damage predicted two decades ago:
Experts say [cocaine's] effects are less severe than those of alcohol and are comparable to those of tobacco—two legal substances that are used much more often by pregnant women, despite health warnings….
Cocaine use in pregnancy has been treated as a moral issue rather than a health problem, [Boston University pediatrician Deborah] Frank said. Pregnant women who use illegal drugs commonly lose custody of their children, and during the 1990s many were prosecuted and jailed….
"Society's expectations of the children," [Frank] said, "and reaction to the mothers are completely guided not by the toxicity, but by the social meaning" of the drug.
Until the government starts locking up mothers who drink wine or smoke cigarettes during pregnancy (not a policy I'm recommending), it should stop pretending that the harsh treatment of cocaine-using mothers is all about saving children.
Last year I discussed a South Carolina Supreme Court decision that overturned the homicide conviction of a cocaine user who received a 20-year sentence after her baby was stillborn. In 2007 I noted the role of the "crack baby" myth in establishing the draconian federal sentences for possession of smokable cocaine. In 2005 I noted the emergence of "meth babies."