A funny thing happened when I started telling people about the crack baby myth: they didn’t believe me. “Myth?” they said, “but the crack baby is real!” My facebook page was consumed in a 25-comment debate before I could convince some of my intelligent, educated friends that, indeed, the crack baby is a fiction. An off-hand comment to a doctor likewise met with amazed surprise – no such thing as a crack baby? Over coffee, friends struggled to let go of the idea of the crack baby because, as one person confessed, it feels so viscerally true. How could something as awful as crack not cause permanent damage to babies? Maybe we don’t yet know how, their resistance implied, but it must be true.
Saying there is no such thing as a crack baby might be a slight exaggeration, but it pales in comparison to the things people were saying in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite the fact that infants born to crack-using mothers were not old enough to attend school, moral entrepreneurs (to borrow Becker’s term) were already warning about a “bio-underclass” flooding our communities and schools, unable to suckle or learn or feel human emotions. Even though early studies suffered from methodological shortcomings (small sample sizes, unreliable identification techniques, selection bias, inconsistent measures, high-attrition rates, racial and class bias) and confounding variables (alcohol, tobacco, and other drug exposure, overlap between cocaine exposure and poverty, poor home environment, lack of parental care, poor maternal health, poor nutrition, social disadvantage, maternal depression), politicians used the specter of the crack baby as part of a larger swing towards conservative, victim-blaming, anti-woman, racist, and classist social and legal policies, with terrible consequences for mothers and children.
Forgive me, then, if I sound glib when I say that there is no such thing as a crack baby. It just seems that if we have to continue to prove this very basic point, then we can’t go on to think about lessons we might learn from the whole crack baby scare.