Academic journal article Social Justice

The Wrong Race, Committing Crime, Doing Drugs, and Maladjusted for Motherhood: The Nation's Fury over "Crack Babies."

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Wrong Race, Committing Crime, Doing Drugs, and Maladjusted for Motherhood: The Nation's Fury over "Crack Babies."

Article excerpt


During the 1990s, women who use illicit drugs during pregnancy became the subject of intense public attention and social stigmatization. They are regarded as incapable of responsible decision-making, morally deviant, and increasingly, unfit for motherhood. In recent years, the civil courts have terminated the parental rights of thousands of women whose infants tested positive for drug exposure at birth (Beckett, 1995). Women have also faced criminal prosecution for prenatal drug use, under statutes including criminal child abuse, neglect, manslaughter, and delivering substances to a minor. For the most part, the women targeted by the courts and the media have been black, poor, and addicted to crack cocaine (Roberts, 1991; Krauss, 1991; Beckett, 1995; Neuspiel et al., 1994; Greene, 1991).

I argue here that the phenomenon of the "crack-baby" is not produced simply by a tragic interaction between illicit substances and a growing fetus. The "crack-baby," rather, has resulted from a broader conjunction of practices and ideologies associated with race, gender, and class oppression, including the war on drugs and the discourse of fetal rights. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the image of trembling, helpless infants irrevocably damaged by their mothers' irresponsible actions became a potent symbol of all that was wrong with the poor, the black, and the new mothers in the post-women's movement, post-civil rights era. Crack-babies provided society with a powerful iconography of multiple social deviance (nonmarital sexuality, criminality,

drug addiction, aberrant maternal behavior), perpetrated upon the most innocent, by the least innocent: women who are in fact "shameless" and "scandalous" (Irwin, 1995).

Below I will discuss the issue of prenatal substance abuse, focusing on women addicted to crack and their children. As I will illustrate, the social, legal, and political trends that comprise the nation's response to this problem have been largely inspired by racial, gendered, and socioeconomic imperatives, rather than by the blind hand of justice.

The Media and the Crack-Baby in the Popular Imagination

In the 1980s, a crack cocaine epidemic exploded in the U.S., sweeping through low-income black communities with a vengeance (Roberts, 1991). Perceiving a dramatic rise in the number of boarder babies and children born to women abusing drugs, the media began to present the public with reports on a drug like no other, crack, and on appearance of a "different" kind of child - the crack-baby. The narrative of the crack-baby interwove specific messages about crack, pregnant addicts, and crack-exposed children. Crack cocaine, journalists wrote, was a drug like no other previously on the streets. Crack was more potent, more addictive, and more likely to lead its users to acts of violence, crime, and desperation.

Among its most desperate and debased users were pregnant women. One of the most harmful effects of crack was said to be that it literally destroyed the maternal instinct in the women who used it (Irwin, 1995; Hopkins, 1990; Appel, 1992; Elshtain, 1990; Debettencourt, 1990). Utterly irresponsible and incompetent, addicted mothers were seen as "inhumane threats to the social order" who willingly tortured their helpless fetuses (Irwin, 1995: 635). One California doctor was quoted as saying, "with every hit the mother plays Russian roulette with the baby's brain" (Hopkins, 1990: 108). Only concerned with feeding their addictions, mothers on crack were said to be incapable of taking care of their children or even caring about the irreparable harm that smoking crack would do to their unborn fetuses. A Rolling Stone article reported that the crack epidemic had left some social service workers "nostalgic" for the heroin mothers who "could buy groceries occasionally and give the kid a bath." "Crack," on the other hand, "leaves nothing to chance. It makes babies that only a mother could love, and wipes out that love as well" (Ibid. …

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