Bioethics Blogs

“Fetal assault” and later environment effects on child development: using neuroscience as a tool for political policy

By Carlie Hoffman

Premature infant, courtesy of Wikipedia
“Crack babies,” “crack kids,” and the “lost generation” were all terms used by the public and the press in the 1980s and 1990s to describe children born to mothers who used crack-cocaine during pregnancy. Supported and spurred on by the media’s interpretation of preliminary research performed by Dr. Ira Chasnoff, among others, these children were often born prematurely, had tremors and a small head circumference, and, based on their description in the press, were expected to have neurobehavioral deficits, reduced intelligence, and deficits in social skills. These children were also anticipated to cost educational and social systems thousands of dollars as they matured and entered into schools and eventually the workforce.
Yet, after additional studies have been conducted and as the “crack babies” have grown into adolescents and young adults, it has been found that the negative outcomes widely described by the media were overreaching and unsupported. “Crack babies” did not, in fact, present evidence of severe, broad problems with social development and cognitive functioning and did not prove to have the predicted detrimental social and financial effects on the school system. Instead, many of these children have grown into successful adults over the past two decades. Dr. Claire Coles, a researcher responsible for producing the first studies that challenged Chasnoff’s findings, thought the era of the “crack baby” had finally come to an end. However, as Coles discussed during the December Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News journal club, “crack babies” and similar stories about children exposed to opiates, have resurged in recent media publications (seen here and here) and are rearing their heads once again.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.