More than 90 physicians, scientists, researchers, and treatment specialists Monday issued an open letter to the mass media calling it to task for "alarmist and unjustified" reporting on so-called "meth babies" and "ice babies." The terms "lack scientific validity and should not be used," said the letters' signatories, a diverse group representing some of the country's foremost specialists on women, children, addiction, and drug treatment.
Organized by Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, with the help of Dr. David Lewis, professor of community health and medicine at Brown University's Alcohol and Addiction Studies Program, the letter was sent to major media outlets and regional newspapers whose reporting has tended to perpetuate the "myth" of "meth babies," as the letter describes it.
The use of terms like "meth baby" echoes the "crack baby" rhetoric of the 1980s, when wildly exaggerated press reports of the effects of cocaine on fetuses and newborns inspired draconian legislation and focused a glaring spotlight on drug-using pregnant women. The "crack baby" phenomenon has since been shown to have no basis in science or medicine, with many of the adverse affects attributed to drug use instead shown to be related to poverty and poor prenatal health care.
Part and parcel of the growing national concern about the "methamphetamine epidemic" allegedly sweeping the country, the focus on meth-using mothers and pregnant women threatens to make them scapegoats for the country's drug problems, said signatories and supporters.
"What prompted this letter was the extraordinary similarity between front-page newspaper stories about meth babies and the effects of meth and what we experienced 20 years ago with crack," said Dr. Lewis. "This was really triggered by the press. Lynn Paltrow and her group deserve most the credit. Lynn and I worked on it, among a number of other people, and what we came up with was a consensus statement from an excellent group of experienced researchers and clinicians," he told DRCNet.
"We are being proactive," said Wyndi Anderson, national education and outreach director for National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "We saw how the 'crack baby' myth evolved and the damage it did to women, children, and families and how it was used to criminalize drug use during pregnancy. We saw -- and still see -- women going to prison for suffering from the disease of addiction. We saw how misinformation spread through the medical community and the education system and the public at large. We know the formula they will use because we've seen it before, and this time we want to stop it on the front end. We need to hold the media accountable from the very beginning, so we don't end up with another 'crack baby' craze."
"There is a particular hysteria around women and kids and drugs, it's where all these hot-button issues intersect -- reproductive rights, fetal rights, race, class, drugs, domestic violence, access to health care," Anderson told DRCNet. "The pregnant drug-addicted woman is a very easy target, and the downside of this hysteria is that it makes it more difficult to actually help them. And that is really sad, because our failure comes at such a high price."
"I work in the industry and I know what happened to the 'crack babies.' It's a shame those kids were labeled like that at the very start of their lives," said Jennifer Feiock, program director of the municipal Alcohol Drug Council in Santa Monica, California, one of the letter's signers. The real problem is not meth or crack, but alcohol, she told DRCNet. "The prevalent problem we have around here is with babies with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome."
"I was interviewed on Voice of America a few years ago, and the host asked me at one point, 'Well, what about the crack babies,'" said Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition, a drug reform group concentrating on federal drug war prisoners. "I said, 'Oh, you mean the ones with no souls? Some of them are in college now and it turns out that all babies have souls,'" she recounted to DRCNet. "How wrong headed is it to stigmatize children with such labels as meth or crack babies? That's a drug habit so-called child advocates must shake. Exaggerations that exploit children grab attention," said Callahan. "They also help usher in expensive and counterproductive new laws."
"I have a background in research and clinical work with pregnant women who were abusing drugs," said University of San Francisco General Hospital professor Dr. Nancy Haug. "When I read about some of the terms being used to describe these women and their children, I decided it was important to endorse this effort to help the media do science-based reporting. The media needs to be informing and educating the public, not stigmatizing this population," she told DRCNet.
It's not quite there yet. "Meth baby" stories are not limited to regional media, such as your local television station, the Daily Oklahoman, or the Arkansas News Bureau, but have also run in such major media outlets as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, CBS News, and CNN, among others. And while the "meth baby" media phenomenon has been gathering force for several years now, such stories began appearing more frequently early this year, as near hysteria over methamphetamine use washes up against the East Coast, having made its way across the country from the Far West where the current round of amphetamine use began taking off almost a decade ago.
In the last few months, the news-consuming public has been treated to hype-heavy material like CBS News' "Generation of Meth Babies" (April 28) and CNN's repeatedly-aired special "The Methamphetamine Epidemic in the United States" (February 3-March 10), which warned melodramatically as the camera showed a picture of an allegedly meth-exposed baby, "This is what a meth baby looks like, premature, hooked on meth and suffering the pangs of withdrawal. They don't want to eat or sleep and the simplest things cause great pain."
The phrase is showing up as an uncontroversial usage among some reporters, too. "Meth Baby Bill Survives Amendment Vote," reported the Arkansas News Bureau in March. "Meth Baby Murder Trial" ran part of a Los Angeles Times headline in September 2003.
But the term also appears in sensationalized reporting "intended to shock and appall rather than inform," the experts complained. In May, one Fox TV local news station warned that "meth babies could make the crack baby look like a walk in the nursery." But the Minneapolis Star Tribune may hold the prize for the shoddiest reporting. In a November 17, 2004, story, the newspaper reported on nurses' gossip in a piece on the horrors of meth-afflicted babies. "Babies can be born with missing and misplaced body parts," the reporter penned before citing her source, a nurse. "She heard of a meth baby born with an arm growing out of the neck and another who was missing a femur."
But media hyperbole notwithstanding, there is no such thing as a "meth baby," nor are there "meth-addicted babies" anymore than there is such a thing as a "crack baby," said the experts in the letter. "Although research on the medical and developmental effects of prenatal methamphetamine exposure is still in its early stages, our experience with almost 20 years of research on the chemically related drug, cocaine, has not identified a recognizable condition, syndrome or disorder that should be termed "crack baby" nor found the degree of harm reported in the media and then used to justify numerous punitive legislative proposals," they wrote.
Neither is there any such thing as a "meth-addicted" baby, said the letter's cosigners. "The term 'meth addicted baby' is no less defensible. Addiction is a technical term that refers to compulsive behavior that continues in spite of adverse consequences. By definition, babies cannot be 'addicted' to methamphetamines or anything else. The news media continues to ignore this fact," the letter said. Fetal physiological dependence on opiates does exist, "but no such symptoms have been found to occur following prenatal cocaine or methamphetamine exposure."
Likewise, oft-repeated claims that methamphetamine is particularly addictive or its users especially immune to drug treatment are unfounded, said the experts. "Analysis of dropout, retention in treatment and re-incarceration rates and other measures of outcome, in several recent studies indicate that methamphetamine users respond in an equivalent manner as individuals admitted for other drug abuse problems. Research also suggests the need to improve and expand treatment offered to methamphetamine users," they noted.
It is not stricter laws or harsher penalties that are needed, but comprehensive treatment programs, said the University of San Francisco's Haug. "There are a lot of successful models where they are provided with prenatal care, drug abuse treatment, parenting skills, nutrition information, couples therapy—a comprehensive approach," said Haug, who cut professional her teeth at Johns Hopkins' Center for Addiction and Pregnancy in Baltimore. "We have models that work with opioid- and cocaine-dependent women, and we can apply them to mothers who are abusing methamphetamine."
But comprehensive drug treatment for poor, drug-abusing women is not nearly as sexy as as blaring, fear-inducing headlines about "meth babies." Still, the media has been put on notice. This time around the networks and the newspapers can't claim they didn't know any better.