09/04/2012 08:18 am ET

'Crack Babies' Comparison To Neonatal Drug Withdrawal Ignores Racist Rhetoric Of 1980s, Experts Argue

Once again, images of squirming infants struggling to hold on to their first minutes of life and stories of newborns shaking from withdrawal in neonatal intensive care units have reclaimed media attention. It seems history is repeating itself as outlets from the New York Times to Time to the Associated Press have revisited one of the few subjects that cuts to the quick of the nation's "family values" rhetoric: babies who have been exposed to drugs in utero.

A recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the number U.S. babies born with signs of opiate drug withdrawal has tripled in a decade, a finding that's in line with evidence of an upsurge in abuse of prescription drugs. These infants have been characterized as the 21st-century version of the 1980s "crack baby" epidemic, which swept the country at the height of the war on drugs. But many contend that comparison is irresponsible because it ignores the racialized and pejorative rhetoric of that era, specifically the inherent implication that the term refers to a black baby.

"The 'crack baby' is a black baby," Dorothy Roberts, a law and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told The Huffington Post. "The very creation of the notion of the crack baby depends on the baby being black -- they go hand in hand."

According to the most recent CDC data, whites abuse prescription drugs at a rate about 12 percent higher than African Americans. Although only a slight disparity, prescription drug abuse is traditionally viewed as an activity concentrated in white, suburban neighborhoods, as opposed to crack-cocaine, which is presumed to be abused primarily in black, urban communities. Roberts said this difference in race, class and choice of drug is precisely what influences the language and tone of the conversation surrounding infants and their mothers.

"There's a very starkly different approach to prescription drug use that may harm children," Roberts said. "That is treated with much more sympathy and with some concern about the humanity of the mother and the mother's needs. There was absolutely no concern about the mothers who smoked crack during pregnancy. The mainstream media's approach to black women with substance abuse problems was completely punitive and vilifying, and it was as if these women weren't even human beings."

Meghan Ralston, Harm Reduction Manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, agreed with this analysis, adding that although the choice to take drugs while pregnant conflicts with widespread social mores, the differences in race and class influence society's tolerance of mothers and their sometimes questionable choices.

"In the case of those black children in the crack baby epidemic, it was very easy for us to demonize the mothers primarily because they were low-income black women," Ralston said. "In the case of white women delivering white babies exposed to drugs, that same level of fear and paranoia isn't there. We don't hate those women quite as much, because there's not that racist element that's driving it.”

"The whole response to the so-called crack baby epidemic was completely punitive," Enid Logan, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, told The Huffington Post. "The response was all about punishment -- punishing [black mothers] for their transgressions, rather than trying to get them help or trying to solve the problem."

While the government and Child Protective Services take action in any case of infant exposure to a controlled substance, regardless of the drug, Roberts said black women are disproportionately subject to government intervention.

"Several studies have shown that black women are more likely to have their newborns removed by CPS for illegal drug use during pregnancy than white women," she said. "A recent study shows that it takes more risk for social workers to remove white children from their homes than black children, because it's all within this context of the notion that black people have some kind of innate problem that can't be fixed."

Both Roberts and Ralston agreed that the panic associated with the 1980s "crack baby" is missing from today's conversation. Present-day coverage of newborns with opiate drug withdrawal syndrome does not imply that they are a rising generation of criminals and violent predators, and race is a major reason why, Roberts said.

"The story is different, not because the lesson has been learned," Logan said. "But the profile of the woman or the user is different, and the kinds of social questions that this concern is responding to are therefore very different. I have not been able to get a grasp on what the social questions are yet, but they're not at all the same ones that generated the crack baby narrative."

The differences between current debates about neonatal withdrawal and that of the 1980s are reflected in the conversation about newborns experiencing opiate withdrawal. In addition to the media attention, the federal government has also taken notice of the surge in prescription drug abuse and the increasing number of children affected by it.

The Office of National Drug Policy held a leadership meeting on Aug. 30 to discuss how to address the needs of maternal addicts and opioid-exposed infants, but Ralston said the issue is being both overblown and mishandled in a fashion similar to approaches to the "crack baby" epidemic.

But some medical professionals said they are seeing proof of the numbers in their own hospitals. Maureen Shogan, a neonatal clinical nurse specialist in Spokane, Wash., said she has personally witnessed the effects of the country's drug fads over the course of her career.

Shogan has cared for newborns affected by various controlled substances, from heroine in the 1970s to crack-cocaine in the '80s to methamphetamines in the '90s and the opiates of today. She said the number of infants experiencing opiate withdrawal in her hospital's neonatal intensive care unit is staggering.

"I would not say it's overblown by any means," Shogan told The Huffington Post. "When we have anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of our babies being exposed, this doesn't feel right."

Ralston said she hopes lessons learned from the gaps in the media coverage of the "crack baby" era will help society be more mindful in the current conversation around neonatal withdrawal syndrome.

"The one good thing that we have on our side today is that we have learned about what the actual facts were around that whole media craze," she said. "The research is clear: We got it wrong. It's been 20 years and we didn't see that, we didn't lose an entire generation."

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America's failed war on drugs Sept. 4 from 12-4 p.m. EDT and 6-10 p.m. EDT. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.



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