"Crack Baby" Lies

From the perspective of anyone who demands proof of the "facts" that are used to decide governmental policy, the awesome amount of money spent and the number of lives ruined in the enforcement of laws and policies that are based solely on anecdotal evidence is staggering.

We fought a war ten thousand miles away because of an invented story about a tiny country engaged in a civil war who purportedly used its huge navy of about a dozen ancient PT boats to attack one of our most advanced destroyers which, we later learned, had invaded this sovereign nation's maritime borders. Over fifty thousand dead American children and millions of dead Vietnamese and Cambodians and Laotians later, the architect of this travesty admits his lie and proceeds to make a fortune writing a book about his fabrications.

For over a decade we supplied arms and money to a brutal Middle Eastern dictator for the sole reason that we hated his neighboring tyrant more and, thus, were able to engage in a war by proxy in which, although hundreds of thousands of soldiers as well as tens of thousands of innocent civilians died, nothing was settled and neither government changed owners or philosophies of hatred. Then, when the dictator we thought we owned invaded a country and oil fields run by a family that we did own, we endangered hundreds of thousands of our children once again to make him leave so that our royal friends could reap the billions in oil revenue, like we intended, and we could again waste the cheap petroleum they provided.

We are now entering the fourth decade of our ridiculous and losing war on drugs. Again, we are depending on anecdotal and, sometimes, completely false information to buttress the billions spent and the millions of lives ruined, not by drugs, but by the draconian laws passed by people utterly ignorant of the truth.

Take as a prime example the tales of "crack babies". In 1985, Dr. Ira Chasnoff reported a tragic syndrome observed in 23 babies born to crack users. These children, he announced "...can't focus on a human face or respond to a human voice." Furthermore, they exhibited "gaze aversion", turning away when someone looked at them.

The press, always looking for some sensational news about the "horrors" of drug use, quickly expanded the story to include accounts of "crack babies" showing signs associated with autism and declared that these babies were "monsters, born mad". The government's legions of scientists claimed that crack was "interfering with the central core of what it is to be human" and destroyed that part of the brain "that makes us human beings...". They even predicted that they would form a "bio-class" doomed to "a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority".

When the subject was studied using the scientific method of asking questions and analyzing the results, the problem of "crack babies" nearly disappeared. What was discovered was that the faulty and nearly nonexistent original research had failed to separate the effects of alcohol, cigarettes, other drugs or, most importantly, poverty.

Claire Coles, professor of psychiatry at Emory University, found some babies labeled "crack babies" were only colicky. Others were victims of gross physical and emotional neglect, with one child being raised by her five year old sister. Constant hunger, fear of neighborhood violence, and even the unthinking advice of supposed experts on the problem (keep them tightly swaddled in dark rooms and shield them from the eye contact of their caretakers) were found to be the cause of these poor children's suffering far more often that any effects of their mother's drug use.

By 1992, after following 300 babies exposed to crack prenatally and finding their IQs equal to babies never exposed, even Dr. Chasnoff was recanting his original diagnosis. "Poverty", he declared, "is the worst thing that can happen to a child".

The entire "crack baby" panic was based not on science but on bad politics. Women have been imprisoned for using crack while pregnant but have never had to answer for excessive alcohol use, a drug which many scientific studies have proven to be harmful to the fetus and newborn.

Most assuredly, some children suffer from the mother's use of crack or heroin or other illegal substances and their use should be restricted. The issue is that politicians use alcohol and cigarettes, so there is no clamor for their criminalization, even though there have been many substantial studies showing the damage that these legal drugs do cause. Bad science and anecdotal evidence is not what we should allow our government to base policy and laws on but neither should they ignore good science for personal and political reasons. Too many lives have been ruined, not by drugs, but by drug and sentencing laws that are based on lies.

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Copyright 8/11/97