Newsbrief: Doctors, Scientists Urge Media to End "Crack Baby" Myth 3/5/04

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Thirty prominent doctors, scientists, and psychological researchers have signed an open letter urging the mass media to stop using terms such as "crack baby" and "crack addicted baby," as well as similar terms, such as "ice baby" and "meth baby." The terms have no scientific validity and unfairly stigmatize the children to whom they are applied, the researchers said in a February 25 letter sent to the Washington Post, the Charleston (South Carolina) Post & Courier, and the Amarillo Globe, among other media offenders.

"We are deeply disappointed that American and international media continues to use a term that not only lacks any scientific basis but endangers and disenfranchises the children to whom it is applied," said the letter, whose signatories included Emmalee Bandstra, MD, director of the University of Miami School of Medicine's Perinatal Chemical Addiction Research and Education (CARE) Program; Dr. Marjorie Beegley, professor of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School, Mary Behnke, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine; Dr. Maureen Black, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; and Elizabeth Brown, MD, director of neonatology at the Boston University School of Medicine/Boston Medical Center -- and that's only the B's.

"Throughout almost 20 years of research, none of us has identified a recognizable condition, syndrome or disorder that should be termed 'crack baby," said the letter. "Some of our published research finds subtle effects of prenatal cocaine exposure in selected developmental domains, while other of our research publications do not. This is in contrast to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which has a narrow and specific set of criteria for diagnosis."

"The term "crack addicted baby" is no less defensible," the letter continued. "Addiction is a technical term that refers to compulsive behavior that continues in spite of adverse consequences. By definition, babies cannot be "addicted" to crack or anything else. In utero physiologic dependence on opiates (not addiction), known as Neonatal Narcotic Abstinence Syndrome, is readily diagnosed, but no such symptoms have been found to occur following prenatal cocaine exposure."

The letter pointed to recent usages of the terms in the Washington Post ("Some of the children just had speech delays; others were crack babies" -- November 9, 2003) and the Amarillo Globe-News ("Woman Indicted in 'Crack Baby' Case" -- February 4, 2004), but said the signatories were inspired to action by a New Jersey case where the "crack baby" label was used by some to explain away a couple's apparent starvation of thee adopted foster children. The letter scored the New York Times for adopting the terminology both in quoting others and in its own reporting ("Michael, the youngest, was born a crack baby before being taken in" -- October 28, 2003).

Visit to read the open letter and complete list of signatories online.

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