Most people have heard of crack babies, others might have lived through the phenomenon. I was in my late teens when I became aware of the crack epidemic in the US (note: crack has never really been big in NZ, nor has cocaine). The way I heard of it was through media, which informed me that crack was a problem of poor black people, that crack was addictive (one try!) and that babies born to crack-addicted mothers were also born addicted, complete with developmental problems that would scar them for life. Pictures of skinny, crying babies abounded, and I had the impression that poor neighbourhoods in the US were full of spaced out crack addicts lying around in the streets.
And I didn't really think much more about it - after all, it was over there happening to those other people, who probably deserved to lose their children because they were irresponsible drug addicts. Remember, this was the time when our own government was selling a message of personal responsibility as part of the neoliberal agenda that had been adopted in 1984. This was particularly pushed at poor people (anyone else remember Jenny Shipley's rousing speeches of the early 90s? BOOTSTRAPS! Anyone remember her attempt to live for a month on a benefit? FAIL!) *cough* But I digress.
So anyway, what happened was that women who'd been found to have used crack during pregnancy were charged and often imprisoned upon the birth of their children, citing supply of illegal substances to a minor (and other similar laws). It was believed that crack caused all sorts of developmental issues for babies and that women who used crack were unfit mothers deserving of punishment and the loss of their children.
What the media didn't tell us was that the research implicating crack in developmental issues for babies had been cherry-picked, and that research that found other factors (tobacco smoking, alcohol use, exposure to malnutrition, violence and substandard housing) were far more likely to affect the development of a fetus, was struggling for exposure.
They also failed to tell us that the screening process to identify 'crack mothers' did not have specific criteria around it - it was a judgement call on medical professionals - and that often the criteria were 'poor' and 'black'. 'Single' was another criteria that seemed over-represented in the selection process of who would be tested - this despite research showing that the most likely people to be using illegal drugs are white and middle-class. As it turns out, in some states in the US, hospitals were obliged to notify the authorities of identified illegal drug users as part of the War on Drugs campaign, however women who came to the attention of the authorities were not charged unilaterally - again, who would be charged and how they would be punished seemed to be a factor of their ethnicity and socio-economic status. Some hospitals used MedicAid eligibility as part of the selection process, and testing was far more likely to be conducted at public hospitals than at private ones. White women were far less likely to be a) tested, b) reported and c) charged.
The rhetoric surrounding this was that of intervention - identifying crack-addicted mothers allowed them to be treated for their addiction and give their foetuses a better chance in life. Except that more than half of the treatment centres of the time would not accept pregnant women, nearly three quarters of them would not accept pregnant women on MedicAid, and almost 90% would not accept pregnant women on MedicAid who were addicted to crack. So 90% of identified crack-addicted mothers were never going to receive treatment, instead they were sent to jail - which did nothing to mitigate any harm already done to the foetus through drug use, probably didn't reduce the mother's access to drugs, and exposed both mother and foetus to conditions established as dangerous for unborn children (overcrowding, violence, poor nutrition, exposure to disease).
Have an article in the New York Times that exposes some of the myths about crack babies.
But that wasn't the scary part of the research. The scary part was the bit where the researcher started to draw in the external context of Reaganomics, the growing rich/poor divide of the time, the increasing poverty of urban blacks due to the policies of tax breaks for businesses and reduced spending on welfare, and the neoliberal rhetoric of poor people being deserving of their situation. Add in the historical research demonstrating the use of opium scares to marginalise Chinese immigrants in economically-depressed 1870s California and the same use of marijuana (reefer madness!) to marginalise Latin American immigrants after the Great Depression, and for me the alarm bells start to go off. In both cases, the substance attributed to a particular poor, marginalised ethnic group was espoused as the cause of their poverty - there was a moral cause for these people's situation, not an economic one! Their own depraved behaviour has led to their downfall! They deserve their suffering! Be outraged at their low morals! We'll show you pictures of skinny babies and that way you won't notice that it's actually white middle class people who mostly use drugs, that tobacco causes more foetal problems than crack does, and that nobody's actually doing anything to help all these suddenly-unemployed urban blacks, or question why they are suddenly unemployed. Won't anybody think of the children?
And that's the scariest bit of all. 'Thinking of the children' as part of the foetal rights movement, in which the second a woman makes a decision to keep her baby, the rights of the foetus become more important than her own. The bit where the medical profession overrides a woman's knowledge of herself and her body when it comes to decisions about her foetus. Think I'm wrong? Have a read of the stuff about women forced to undergo unwanted medical procedures against their will, 'for the health of the foetus'. Court-ordered caesarians, anyone? The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that "a mother who had taken prescription medication for her own health could be held criminally liable for failing to provide 'proper prenatal care" - the implication being that the right of the foetus to 'proper prenatal care' is more important than the health of the mother. So much for reproductive rights.
So anyway, if the rights of the foetus are so important that poor black single mothers who are addicted to crack automatically come second to them, to the point where said mothers must be incarcerated and punished for being poor, black, single and addicted to crack, what exactly happens to the Ultimately Important Foetus after it stops being a foetus and starts being a poor, black, welfare kid? I'm not sure. But I know that along with the race to save these crack babies from their terrible mothers, there was slashing of funding for welfare, public education and health in the US - along with the biggest surge in incarceration of young black people in history. So, um, we rescue this kid from its mother so that we can neglect its health and education, so that we can put it in prison as soon as it's old enough, all the while reassuring ourselves that this kid deserves its own situation because it's somehow morally bankrupt and that by being poor and black at birth, it brought it all on itself. What? Did that come through the placenta with the crack?
Apparently it did. Because that's easier to believe than it is to believe that perhaps the system that the people voted into power isn't actually working. And you know, it's only not-working for those other people. The ones over there, who aren't like us. They are morally bankrupt crack addicts who won't get off their lazy black asses and do something about themselves, therefore they are the ones to blame. We have BOOTSTRAPS! And the backing of a society that turns a blind eye to our drug use during pregnancy because.. well, because we're not black. Or poor. And because prosecuting us could be embarrassing instead of being seen to be 'doing something about it'.
Argh, done now. I'm a little afraid of what I might find if I start looking too deeply into these types of associations between drugs, systematic inequality and neoliberalism in New Zealand.
I'm really surprised I didn't have nightmares. It's weird - I know all these theories, I've read this kind of stuff before, but for some reason this article made my head go *clunk* and now I'm kind of reeling at the implications of it all. Ow.
Next up - globalisation and the role of women in the war on drugs. Oh fun fun reading!
Meanwhile, I think rikan_feral and I should do a dj comedy act. Just saying.