More than 30 states have filed charges against women for taking illegal drugs during pregnancy. In 1997, for instance, South Carolina's Supreme Court ruled that women who use drugs during pregnancy can be prosecuted for child abuse. The vast majority of women targeted under this policy are crack cocaine users. But a new study conducted at the University of Florida suggests the laws are as misguided as they are harsh. Children born to cocaine-addicted mothers are no more likely than other kids from similar backgrounds to have significant behavioral problems during their first three years.
Psychologist Fonda Davis Eyler and pediatrician Marylou Behnke studied 300 children from poor families with similar racial backgrounds. Half of the kids had been exposed to cocaine in the womb, half had not. The researchers asked the parents or guardians to answer detailed questions about their children's behavior and temperament. There were no significant differences between the two groups, although both sets of children showed more behavioral problems than average— a finding that Eyler and Behnke attribute to poverty and bad living conditions. "There's not a strong effect of cocaine on misconduct or behavior problems in these children," says Eyler. "We can have a lot more hope about their future."
Still, she and Behnke agree that questionnaires completed by caretakers or family members may give subjective results. Psychologist Barbara Strupp of Cornell hoped to avoid such ambiguities with a laboratory test. She injected rats with cocaine during pregnancy and then studied their offspring. The rat young displayed no memory deficits or social abnormalities, although they did have difficulty staying attentive to tasks when distracted. "In the early 1990s, major magazines ran cover stories on crack kids, but these reports were not based on scientific evidence. Despite popular belief that there are lasting and devastating effects of prenatal cocaine exposure, that just hasn't been the case," Strupp says.