If Crack Babies Are a Myth, Why Are We Still Falling For It?

Last month, national media elevated the case of Nina Buckhalter. The Mississippi woman has been charged with manslaughter for the stillbirth of a child authorities say was exposed to methamphetamines while in the womb. Prosecutors there are using Buckhalter to test whether they can contort the state’s laws as their neighbors in Alabama have done. The case is the latest to reveal how statutes put in place to protect children from being raised in meth labs or pregnant women from their abusers are being used instead to advance the idea that a fertilized egg is a person whose rights outweigh those of the woman carrying it.

Buckhalter lost a child she had planned to parent and faces prison if the state Supreme Court upholds the charge and forces her to stand trial. Her lawyers say she has kicked her meth habit and is piecing together a future despite becoming the latest target of a strategy that marries the war on drugs with the war on women’s bodies. Nothing conjures public judgment and disgust like the thought of a woman prioritizing her addiction over the safety of her pregnancy. But, as an amicus brief submitted on behalf of the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other public health groups makes clear, science doesn’t support the prosecution’s argument that Buckhalter’s use of meth caused the stillbirth. It doesn’t support the prosecutors who are going after fellow Mississippian Rennie Gibbs or who succeeded in convicting Alabamians Amanda Kimbrough and Hope Ankrom either.

There’s rarely been room for rigorous research or scientific fact in conversations about drug-using pregnant women. Three days before Buckhalter’s case hit national headlines, the New York Times released a mini-documentary titled “Revisiting the ‘crack babies’ epidemic that was not.” The video echoes the findings of an article the outlet published four years ago and holds 1980s news media responsible for validating and disseminating predictions that infants born to women who used crack were hard-wired for abnormality. Too few questions were asked about the details of what turned out to be shoddy research. The researcher who got the ball rolling on the crack baby narrative drew his conclusions from a study of just 23 infants.

From these two dozen babies grew the story that others like them would develop into children destined to disrupt classrooms and overwhelm social services, “a potential human plague almost too horrible to imagine,” as one Washington Post columnist put it. The crack baby was judged and feared alongside its mother. Today’s drug-exposed fetus, on the other hand, is a blameless victim, an innocent on whose behalf the state must seek justice.

Prosecutors in these recent cases may want today’s journalists to do what too many did 30 years ago: Let their instinct to condemn override their professional skepticism. But really those who'd like to make an example of these women by putting them behind bars are less dependent on how news media frame specific cases. Unlike the drug warriors and faux science-spreading Cassandras of the ‘80s, today’s prosecutions have the wind of a vibrant, states-focused anti-choice movement at their back. In Mississippi in particular, jurors, judges, and observers have heard debates around the failed personhood amendment and new regulations on abortion clinics. They have a context for understanding prosecutors’ arguments that a fetus has more rights than the woman carrying it. What may have once seemed a far-fetched notion has been mainstreamed as a legitimate perspective.

It's a tall order to make the science compelling and clear enough to compete with simple story lines about depraved and selfish women whose moral failings keep them from prioritizing their pregnancies over their addictions. Thirty years ago, race-based assumptions were the primary obstacles to truth telling. Today, anti-choice rhetoric has paved the way for myth-making.