Sensationalizing Drug Use in Pregnant Women: How the Media Perpetuates Racist and Ineffective Policies
Well before anyone could be certain of how Whitney Houston died, several news outlets rushed to describe her as a “ crack cocaine user.” And in all likelihood many will think of the popular singer as succumbing to illegal drugs, even if alcohol eventually is found to be more closely related to her demise.
This is not all that different from how the media deals with infant and child health.
Regardless of the actual causes behind low birth weight, infant mortality, and early childhood health issues, media reports are sure to blame the “ crack baby syndrome” or, more recently, women’s abuse of prescription pain killers.
This kneejerk reaction is unhelpful for a number of reasons.
First of all, a pregnant woman’s use of illicit drugs is neither the only nor the most damaging pregnancy phenomenon from the point of view of infant health.
Take, for example, legal drugs, such as alcohol and cigarettes. Peer reviewed research shows that over-consumption of alcohol can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (linked with permanent mental retardation), whereas cocaine seems to act only as one contributing factor in some pregnancies to increase non-permanent risk factors such as low birth weight. Approximately twice as many pregnant women drink alcohol frequently as use illicit drugs frequently during their pregnancies.
Epidemiological research published in the mid 1990s shows that the use of tobacco products in the United States at the time was responsible, each year, for tens of thousands of tobacco-induced miscarriages, infants born with low birth weight, infants who require admission to neonatal intensive care units, as well as an estimated 1900 to 4800 infant deaths. Though smoking has gone down over the past decades, around 17 percent of adult women in the United States still smoke, and generally continue to smoke during their pregnancies.
Even drugs administered to women who are in fertility treatment have been associated with low birth weight and premature birth.
Or let’s set aside drugs altogether. Malnutrition in pregnant women is one of the main causes of low birth weight and infant mortality worldwide. In this sense, it is worth noting that food insecurity and hunger has grown steadily in the United States since the start of the latest financial crisis in 2008. (Food insecurity exists whenever the availability of nutritionally-adequate and safe foods or the ability to acquire foods is limited or uncertain). According to the latest figures, about 17.2 million households in the United States suffered food insecurity in 2010, the highest number ever registered. Yet the government’s food stamp program is increasingly under attack by pundits and politicians.
Secondly, even a superficial read of arrest and prosecution figures for drug use during pregnancy reveal such a severe race and class bias that the very legitimacy of the approach must be questioned.