Recent medical research suggests that the 1980s “crack baby” scare was exaggerated. A review in medical journal Pediatrics found little support of long-term effects on children whose mothers used cocaine while pregnant.
The research involved low-income, largely black and urban families, and indicated that while pre-natal cocaine use increases the risk for “less favorable adolescent functioning”, the risk is “small.” Researchers added that environmental factors including violence could contribute additional threats to adolescents.
Pediatric psychologist Maureen Black, of the University of Maryland, led the review. Twenty-seven studies, that included more than 5,000 eleven to 17-year-olds whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy, were reviewed.
Crack cocaine proliferation in the 1980s contributed to fears about “crack babies”, who were sometimes born jittery and with smaller heads. Articles, studies and ideas in subsequent years contributed to fear and “othering” of children whose mothers used the drug while pregnant. Concerns lingered that an entire generation had been irreparably damaged.
In a 2009 New York Times article, a Brown University pediatrics professor addressed challenges for children who were exposed to cocaine while in utero. That professor, Barry Lester, also directs the Maternal Lifestyle Study, a federally funded study of children exposed to cocaine in their mothers’ wombs.
“Are there differences,” Lester asked. “Yes. Are they reliable and persistent? Yes. Are they big? No.”
With medical professionals suggesting that the crack baby scare wasn’t as bad as anticipated, many are grateful. Others emphasize that illicit drug-free pregnancies are ideal.
Drug problems remain at the forefront in the criminal justice system, as a health care issue and in pervasive use and abuse. About 14% of U.S. adults have tried cocaine, according to WebMD. The average age of first use among recent cocaine “initiates” aged 12 to 49 was 21 years, according to the 2010 National Survey of Drug Use and Health.
Since cocaine can cause heart attacks, strokes and permanent lung damage, among other effects, many fear the potential for lifelong addictions, drug-induced episodes and lives cut short. Others believe that some anti-drug ideas and drug scares are rooted in ethical policing.
Medical Daily’s Elijah Wolfson compared cocaine usage during pregnancy with other drugs. “In fact, experts have found that exposure to alcohol and tobacco use while in the womb actually has more significant long-term detrimental health effects than PCE [pre-natal cocaine exposure],” Wolfson wrote.
“Of course, no one is recommending crack use for pregnant women. But the fact that the media and public was so up in arms about the issue does point to a separate health issue entirely: the moralizing of public health.”