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.

Since 1985, 80 percent of the more than 200 pregnant women or new mothers in over 20 states who have been arrested and charged with crimes related to substance use during pregnancy were black or Latina. In 2000, research in Pinellas County in Florida found that while white women and women of color used illegal drugs at comparable rates, black women were 10 times more likely than white women to be reported for child abuse related to substance use during pregnancy. That same year, data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that while black women had a higher overall rate of illicit drug use than white women, most women who use illegal drugs during pregnancy were white. Even so, 41 of the 42 women arrested in South Carolina under a mandatory drug testing program were black. (The program was suspended in the mid-1990s because of allegations of racial discrimination).

Meanwhile, research published in 2006 shows that newborns with white mothers are much more at risk of alcohol and tobacco exposure than newborns with black or Latina mothers.

Moreover, in many cases women with private health insurance are not mandatorily tested for illicit drug use during pregnancy. In this sense, poverty itself is what singles a pregnant woman out for persecution. It is no coincidence that the main focus for drug prosecutions for pregnant women in the United States is crack cocaine, a drug almost exclusively used by the resource-poor. As Whitney Houston herself famously said in an interview in 2002: “I make too much money to ever smoke crack.”

The point here is not that pregnant women should use cocaine, or that the government—and society as a whole—does not have a legitimate interest in ensuring infant and child health.

The point is that the prosecution of drug use in pregnant women does nothing to fulfill a legitimate policy goal and in fact seems to be racially motivated—at least in the implementation—rather than spurred by a concern for children.

In fact, if the objective is to improve infant and child health, efforts to overcome poor nutrition, alcohol addiction, lack of adequate health care, physical abuse, and/or homelessness would make for much better investments. Sadly, such policies don’t make for as sensational news.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • poed-lib

    There is a simple fact, that you have overlooked. Mere disparity in marginal frequency is not ipso facto evidence of shit. It is simply a disparity. Your comments border on irresponsible, in that you are excusing drug use due to a supposed disparity. You have shown no disparity. If in fact (and you have no facts) there is a population difference, this is not a disparity. Your shoddy rant makes this blog the liberal equivalent of the Drudge Report. Responsible people would not publish trash like this. I’d pull it from my site, since is an embarrasing and humiliatingly ignorant comment. And let me be clear: to show disparity, you need population incidence of drug use during pregnancy broken by race. The simple assumption of equal proportion is the epitome of ignorance, shoddy thinking, and racist attitudes of your own. The statistics which you do not report and merely allude to may or may not have any relevance. Who’s to say, considering the superficial  nature of this discussion?

  • anonymousmom

    I smoked marijuana occasionally (maybe twice a week) before I got pregnant, it was my alternative to drinking a beer or two after work to relax – I just can’t tolerate drinking alcohol (nor did I partake of any other drugs). When we found out we were pregnant, we were ecstatic, I immediately stopped smoking, shopped around for a midwife who took Medicaid to begin pre-natal care (as private insurance was prohibitively expensive at our jobs – 750$ a month at the cheapest) and generally did everything a responsible expectant mother did.

    Unfortunately despite quitting my drug test came up positive for marijuana, I told them I had quit and during pregnancy tested negative many, many, many times. Yet 3 days after my daughter was born a CPS case worker came to us and told my husband and I, we wouldn’t be taking our daughter home because of one failed drug test at the beginning of my pregnancy. Funny though, If I had done the ‘irresponsible’ thing and not gone in for prenatal care right away I would have tested negative.

    Luckily a friend stepped forward and agreed to be a guardian for her since her parents obviously couldn’t be trusted with her well being, he moved in with us for the few months it took to get this straightened out. We had mandatory parenting classes that only taught us that we didn’t belong caught up in the CPS net, we didn’t burn, beat, starve, torture ect our child, I hadn’t sustained a meth/cocaine/heroin ect addiction while pregnant – we were overjoyed about our pregnancy and had our lives ready for a child. We both had University degrees and successful careers, made enough money to quite comfortably start a family, we were in our late 20’s and generally had all of our ducks in a row.

    Medicaid was supposed to help us create a healthy family when in reality our daughter was almost taken from us, causing substation emotional distress and causing my post natal depression (I was convinced at any moment they would come and take her). My husband is convinced that had I been a white women the matter would have been dropped after a few clean drugs test while pregnant but since I am HISPANIC (he is white), I was put into a high risk category.

    What kills me about this is many, many women smoke tobacco and drink while they are pregnant but they are never at risk for their children being taken from them – despite their known toxic effects on a pregnancy and subsequent baby. While marijuana during pregnancy has been found to be an excellent treatment for Hyperemesis Gravidarum with little side effects.

    We are convinced that my race and one positive drug test for marijuana, (smoked before I even knew I was pregnant) is what put us on the CPS radar. My race shoudln’t have been the deciding factor to place our family in the high risk categoy.