The Crack Baby Scare: From Faulty Science to Media Panic | Retro Report

The Crack Baby Scare: From Faulty Science to Media Panic | Retro Report

There was another warning about cocaine today. Crack now has spread to almost every American city. It is a problem in Houston, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Tucson and Sacramento. In the 1980s, the media sounded the alarm that a new drug – crack cocaine – was taking over American cities and that it had an especially devastating effect on pregnant women and their newborns. A new study says that babies born to women who use cocaine during pregnancy are three times as likely to be born with birth defects. They tend to be what we call jittery. They are at very, very high risk for cerebral palsy, mental retardation. They are prone to hypertension, strokes and sudden infant death syndrome. These children, who are the most expensive babies ever born in America, are going to overwhelm every social service delivery system that they come in contact with throughout the rest of their lives. Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart, and replace it with a nightmare. But where these infants really doomed? Decades later, what is the true legacy of the crack baby era? In the early 1980s, Dr. Ira Chasnoff, a young researcher at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, decided to study what he saw as a worrisome trend among his pregnant patients who had used cocaine. Women were coming in and their babies were looking different when they were born. They had higher rates of prematurity. And they had higher rates of newborn seizures and other complications. A lot of the babies exposed to cocaine, are quite small. We think that that’s related to the use of the drug during pregnancy. We had seen the effects of alcohol, and other substances, on children so we were certainly open to the idea that this was a problem. Cocaine was an epidemic. I think that it was something that the media, I mean, it became an exciting thing to talk about. We call our broadcast “48 Hours on Crack Street.” Soon after our paper was published, within days we were getting calls from media all over the country and started hearing the term crack babies. Spotlight Tonight, our investigative series on cocaine kids. Despite all the warnings, a growing number of babies are being born already addicted to cocaine. As it got out into the world it became this, this, phenomenon. Twenty-three babies were born to the cocaine using women in the study. Because the problem has appeared so suddenly there are few reliable statistics. The number of so-called cocaine babies is growing at an astonishing rate. The number of babies born addicted has risen more than 500 percent. I had lots of people interviewing me. Dr. Ira Chasnoff, of Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital, runs the oldest program researching cocaine and the newborn. It appears that cocaine has just as devastating effect on pregnancy, and the newborn, as heroin. Chasnoff told reporters that cocaine exposure was causing some babies to be born with brain damage and that others were overwhelmed by even simple eye contact with the mother. These children are not normal in the sense that they are going to be able to enter the classic schoolroom and function in large groups of children. Other researchers and doctors echoed Chasnoff’s conclusions and a host of seemingly recognizable symptoms took hold.
One of the things that we see about babies who have been exposed to cocaine is they tend to be very tremulous and shaky… Very fine kinds of tremors. We looked to see if we would find the effects that were reported. And we were saying, “Well, we aren’t seeing this.” As Chasnoff’s star rose, Dr. Claire Coles was reaching a different – though equally startling – conclusion about crack babies, based on her study of infant behavior at Emory University. The effects didn’t seem consistent with the action of the drug itself. Many of the children who were the so-called, classic cocaine babies were premature babies and the symptoms that were seen on the videos, on television – the, you know, tremoring arms and all that, that was prematurity. You could have taken any premature baby and gotten the same image. I think that people got very focused on cocaine is the cause of this rather than thinking, substance abuse is a cause of this, maternal lifestyle is the cause of this, social issues are the cause of this. But Coles’ findings didn’t fit within the narrative of what had become a national scare. Cocaine. Crack. If you use drugs while you’re pregnant, your baby can die. There’s a whole lot of people who feel that if you can just scare people sufficiently about something, that that’s better than actually telling them the truth about something because that will prevent them from doing bad things. Police! The American agenda tonight poses this question. What would you do about pregnant women who use drugs and pass those drugs onto their babies? By the late 1980s, Chasnoff’s findings were being used to justify cases charging pregnant cocaine users as child abusers, drug dealers and killers. I was at first stunned, and then angry that they would distort the information.
That’s when I started realizing how a lot of this can be taken out of context and used to bolster any kind of argument. People may have felt that they were doing the right thing, but I mean the idea that one would prosecute a pregnant woman And use this kind of not very accurate research to do so is very disturbing. As the prosecutions continued, crack babies grew to toddlers. No one knows how many there are, or even how best to identify them. But educators suspect that tens of thousands of crack kids are in kindergartens in inner cities, in suburbia, even in small town America. It now threatens to create an entirely new underclass of children, unable to care for themselves, of infants born to suffer. In the United States this year at least a 100,000 crack babies will be born. Today the government said it will cost five billion dollars a year to care for such babies and money doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. I’m supposed to be a victim of that crack era. I was supposed to be disruptive. Mentally unstable. I wasn’t supposed to reach the point where I am now. The initial hypothesis was that drug abuse would lead to huge physical deformities, huge mental deformities in children, and, you know, in myself, I didn’t see any of those things, so it would be easy for me to believe that that science doesn’t hold true. Hi! Decades since Chasnoff’s initial research – which focused on just 23 babies – long-term studies have found only subtle changes in the brains of cocaine-exposed research subjects like Stone. There’s no particular evidence of this social-emotional deficit. You’re not seeing really broad scale severe developmental problems as was predicted. The schools have not been overwhelmed by the flood of cocaine-exposed children. In fact, Stone became the first in her family to graduate from college. In learning that I had been exposed I kind of told myself, I’m no going to make this an issue. Whatever I have to do to get around what the effects may be, I’ll do that. The paper was a very preliminary kind of finding.
And it really shouldn’t have been generalized to the extent it was. Which I believe that Dr. Chasnoff eventually came to himself, and said that that he felt that this didn’t really represent the whole of the situation. Doctor, let’s go to you on this question. You’ve studied this – perhaps one of the first people to study this. How does cocaine use affect newborns? Well, there is no question that cocaine use during pregnancy has some real effects on the unborn and on the newborn child, uh, but these effects are not devastating and can be addressed through treatment for the pregnant woman and for the child. Over time, Chasnoff did distance himself from some of the extreme pronouncements he was quoted as making in the early days. I probably talked too much or gave long-winded explanations, which were completely cut out. It was one of those feelings where you just feel completely out of control. Bt the hysteria that followed his initial research had already taken its toll. It wasn’t even a natural disaster or a war. It was a drug that caused so much harm among my generation and my parent’s generation. Certainly cocaine was contributing to this problem, but they got very focused on it as the only sole cause of it. I think people still believe the cocaine story, but alcohol is much more of a problem than cocaine
because there is much more alcohol used and it has much more severe effects. I think if you say something three times out loud people take it as fact and also I think that there are certain ideas that people want to believe that really fit in with cultural stereotypes, and it’s hard to get rid of those.


56 thoughts on “The Crack Baby Scare: From Faulty Science to Media Panic | Retro Report”

  • The little red haired girl from across the street says:

    Crack babies are real but people definitely overreacted. I know some kids that were exposed to drugs and alcohol as fetuses and they are definitely not “normal” and never will be, but they definitely aren’t nearly as bad as these people said. They go to school like normal people and can hold conversations to an extent. It’s certainly not an ideal situation and I can wholly see why one should change someone for inflicting such birth defects on their children, but that applies to any parents who abuse substances while their children are in the womb.

  • Just wanted to thank you guys for yet another great video. I came across your videos recently and I must say, you never disappoint on delivering well worked out interesting videos, keep it up!

  • Bad science bolstered by the Reagan/Bush era, due to the fact that it fit into the drug war nicely. Nice job of mass media using exploitive tactics at the time.

  • "Overwhelmed by simple eye contact with the mother" – Well of course, she's a crackhead. Everyone is overwhelmed by that.

  • I work at a doctors office and we had a grandma take her granddaughter in and the granddaughter had many physical and mental defects! So sad, and the mother was in jail for drug charges still! The granddaughter was about 14 and she was shaky, nervous, and very socially awkward! So sad!

  • Ashley Sutherland says:

    Out of all the cities listed at the start as examples of the crack baby epidemic of the 80s I'm surprised Miami wasn't mentioned

  • That's terrible! Of course push that alcohol is the most awful thing a person can do to their unborn child just look at their babies when their born?‍♀️?

  • You think people didn't know? wasn't there some guy during the Nixon administration that had spoken out about how the whole war on drugs wasn't even designed to solve addiction but to hurt minorities, I know he was talking about Marijuana (a drug the administrations demonized even though knowing it didn't have the side effects they said it did) couldn't this scare have been made with their agenda in mind as well, especially with Reagan at the helm


    The mainstream American press are PURE PROPAGANDISTS. They will create a false narrative and hysteria for their puppet masters. Trump got it right when he said they are the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.

  • So are crack babies not real? Kuz I’ve seen videos/docs of “crack” babies that had to go through withdrawal after they were born.. were those false? I’m confusion

  • In my professional capacity, I have met several people who were born crack babies. The people with permanent damage are smaller in both height and weight, with a lower IQ. If you know what to look for, you realize you have been seeing/meeting someone who are in this spectrum every day. Most crack babies were the lucky ones who evolve into "normal" adults. I don't meet many of those.

  • These women were full blown strung out addicts. Babies weren't automatically drug tested then. I guarantee there were a lot more babies born exposed to cocaine . If their mothers were casual users they wouldn't have shown signs of withdrawal since there wouldn't be any. It's not that simple. Not all users are full blown addicts. There's millions of people that use something and function in society with nobody knowing about it. Especially doctors…..js

  • "Drugs take away the dream from every child's heart… and replace it with a *nightmare*."

    Nancy Reagan, ladies and gentlemen. What a dork.

  • No matter how many times I hear it, your theme/intro song is simply amazing. It always pumps me for the story which will be told 🙂

  • The doctors neglected to express that neonates born prematurely or low birth weight are at risk for developmental delays and learning difficulties thus using cocaine or crack can negatively impact a child’s health – just not to the hysterical levels it was reported.

  • Luke Posadas says:

    Regardless of the substance, any substance abuse as a pregnant mother should be treated as child abuse. That being said, if an addict finds out she is pregnant and looks for help more power to her, and there are programs for this. I was around drugs for a long time and nothing made me more upset than when a pregnant mother would continue using their drug of choice, they should be punished and charged with child abuse. To the mothers that stopped turned to their doctors for help and gave up everything for their babies, God bless!

  • Keep it all the Way Funky says:

    Now the opioid addiction has surpassed crack. Makes you wonder what is it going to be in 20 years from now? ??

  • Samantha Balemba says:

    This is a great summary of the panic surrounding this issue. I will be sharing this with the Criminal Justice class I'm teaching now about Moral Panics, as this is a great example and an excellent description of the problem, its effects, and its aftermath.

  • >Chaznov’s study only included 23 babies

    What the fuck???? How was this study even remotely taken seriously??? How the fuck do you use such a minuscule sample size the judge the results of a drug abuse epidemic much less the effects on the subsequent generations

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