Cracked Lenses: the Visual Exploitation of Crack Mothers
by Alexandra Cox

 media  reproductive-rights  substance-abuse

I. Introduction

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, photographs of women who used crack cocaine while they were pregnant, as well as their children, appeared at an alarming rate in the popular media in the United States and abroad. The crack cocaine “epidemic,” which was widely discussed and debated in the U.S., was made visible through these images. Crack cocaine, a smokeable form of cocaine that is adulterated by baking soda, is a cheap alternative to powder cocaine, and is frequently mistaken to be more potent than powder cocaine. Crack was invented after the U.S. government clamped down on the illegal importation of illicit drugs like cocaine during the 1980s; as the price of powder cocaine went up in response to crackdowns at the borders, poor users found a way to make cocaine cheaper and more accessible.

During the crack cocaine epidemic, poor communities of color were exposed to media scrutiny, leading many to make the mistaken assumption that most crack users were African-American. In fact, individuals of all ethnicities use crack cocaine. However, drug use is more visible in poor communities of color primarily as a result of the lack of safe and healthy environments and culturally appropriate treatment networks in these communities. As a result, the police and media exposed poor, urban communities of color to increased scrutiny during the 1980s and 1990s, and possession of crack still results in sentences that are often 100 times higher than that of powder cocaine.

Crack babies became the victims of this crack epidemic, or at least the evidence to prove the drug’s impact. Photographs of tiny babies hooked to ventilators, or of mothers, usually African-American, living on the streets or in other sub-standard living conditions, appeared in newspapers and magazines in order to bolster stories about the supposed moral depravity of these women. Press coverage of pregnant drug-using women prompted numerous punitive legislative proposals. Around the country, women were arrested, incarcerated, had their parental rights terminated, and were even sterilized for using drugs during their pregnancy. Adoption and sterilization programs were created in response to the ‘rising tide’ of crack babies. Despite the lack of laws specifically authorizing the criminal prosecution of pregnant drug using women, more and more women were criminally prosecuted for their drug use during pregnancy, mainly through prosecutors’ creative use of criminal statutes that did not specifically apply to drug use during pregnancy, but which could be used to prosecute these women nonetheless.

The prosecution of pregnant and parenting women who use crack cocaine is just one aspect of the U.S. government’s ‘War on Drugs,’ which had reached its fullest fire during the 1980s and 1990s, but that had begun during President Nixon’s tenure as a response to the rising civil unrest in the wake of the Vietnam War. This War on Drugs purported to reduce the demand for illicit drugs, usually through heightened arrests, prosecutions, and sentencing, and usually at serious costs. Scores of individuals were arrested during the 1980s and 1990s for drug possession offenses, and harsher mandatory minimum sentences were enacted to send individuals away to prison for longer periods of time for smaller and smaller amounts of drugs. African-American men and women have borne the brunt of this War on Drugs, as they are arrested and prosecuted for drug offenses in disproportionate numbers, despite their proportionate use of illicit substances compared to the rest of the population. According to the United State Department of Justice, African-Americans constitute 36.8% of those arrested for drug offenses and over 42% of those in federal prisons for drug violations, and 58% of those in state prisons for drug felonies.1

The ‘War on Drugs’ has also resulted in higher rates of incarceration of women of color and indigent women. In 2004, black women were nearly four times as likely to be incarcerated as white females.2 In many cases, the arrest and incarceration of women for drug offenses is a direct result of their gender, and in particular, their unique experience as survivors of serious physical, emotional and sexual trauma. Poor women who do not have safe access to drug treatment, medical care and housing often use drugs as a way of relieving the emotional and physical pain they suffer from. Indigent women also lack adequate nutrition, safe housing, and frequently live in fear of having their children taken away from them by the state. These are all factors that impact a woman’s increased use of drugs. Marsha Rosenbaum and Sheigla Murphy, two medical sociologists who have written extensively about cocaine and pregnancy, argue that while both black and white women use cocaine, a poor black woman’s experience with the drugs is “profoundly affected by the poverty, racism, and sexism that shaped her life.”3 In their book Pregnant Women on Drugs, in which they interviewed 120 pregnant or recently delivered drug using women, Rosenbaum and Murphy found that many women grew up in the homes of relatives or foster parents, had suffered from physical or sexual trauma, had witnessed parental substance abuse, and were often involved in professions like sex work, all factors that led to their drug use.4

During the 1980s and 1990s, Welfare Queens became a popular public scapegoat, and poor women were increasingly blamed for their reliance on the state for welfare, housing and health care. Women who used drugs while they were pregnant were seen as unable to make stable decisions about their own lives, bucking the personal responsibility trend that helped to sustain mainstream America. These women were responsible for producing a new “bio-underclass,” whose “biological inferiority is stamped at birth,” according to nationally syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, although many others shared his sentiments.5 There was a rising belief that the reproductive rights of the women who produced this new “bio-underclass” needed to be curbed. Yet while there were more than two hundred criminal prosecutions initiated against pregnant women in the late 1980s, there still remained a dearth of publicly funded drug treatment options, job training, housing and health care options for women, and especially for women with children. Less than 11 percent of women who need drug treatment each year receive it, and many drug treatment programs refuse to allow drug-using pregnant women and their children.6

The truth behind women who use drugs while they are pregnant is a story that is frequently left untold. Photographic representations are a valuable lens through which prevailing ideas about the political and social control of pregnant drug-using women, particularly in the context of the War on Drugs, can be seen. In this article, I will challenge the idea that these photographs represented the truth about these women and their babies, and ultimately, the crack scare itself.

II. The medical truths about crack babies

Many medical studies that appeared during the crack scare of the 1980s and 1990s documented the negative effects of cocaine on pregnancy. Most notably, a 1985 study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that cocaine exerted “an influence on the outcome of the pregnancy as well as on neonatal neurobehavior.”7 Researchers from the Northwestern Memorial Hospital Perinatal Addiction Project who produced this study had been following children prenatally exposed to drugs for over ten years, and they put together their study only after cocaine had ‘hit’ Chicago in 1980-82.8 Although individuals had used cocaine in Chicago for decades, political and social imperatives made it visible (when it ‘hit’ Chicago, for example). Researchers then found it useful to provide visual or medical proof of the dangers of that use. This is perhaps why an avalanche of studies that examined the influence of cocaine on a pregnancy came after this one.

Years of hysteria about the ‘crack baby’ continued, despite the lack of scientific research to support the dire predictions being made and labels being given to these children. The most comprehensive evaluation of available research, published in the Spring of 2001 in the distinguished journal of the American Medical Association, known as JAMA, confirmed that the crack baby may not have existed after all. The JAMA study was a systematic review of all of the available literature on prenatal cocaine exposure. The study concluded that there is no significant evidence that demonstrates the negative developmental effects of cocaine on newborn babies.9 In fact, studies have shown that babies are most often affected by aspects of the mother’s environment-her lack of access to food, shelter and basic medical and psychological services, for example. Photographs of crack babies, then, appeared to represent an objective ‘truth’ about drug use during pregnancy, only that truth was in fact never proven.

Earlier medical studies of women who used drugs while they were pregnant demonstrated the bias of the studies’ authors. While the authors were looking for the singular effect of cocaine on pregnancy, they often failed to notice that many of the women they studied were polydrug users, meaning they often used more than one drug, including tobacco and alcohol, during pregnancy.10 Additionally, the women studied had limited access to prenatal care or other health care services, they had co-occurring illnesses or diseases, they had suffered from some sort of sexual or psychological trauma, and they were frequently exposed to environmental contaminants. All of these factors have been shown to play a role in negative pregnancy outcomes. Additionally, it has recently been discovered that men can also affect pregnancy outcomes, depending on contaminants they might be exposed to or other physiological factors.

Despite the fact that babies could be affected by any number of factors during a pregnancy, the term ‘crack baby’ was and continues to be used widely. Crack babies have become so real to the American public that they have gained a legal and medical status. After the crack baby’s birth, pregnant and parenting women began to face the scorn of both the public and the police throughout the country. South Carolina began to arrest and prosecute women who used drugs while they were pregnant, and this trend was to be followed by states across the country. The leading teaching hospital in the state of South Carolina, the Medical University of South Carolina, instituted a policy of searching and arresting pregnant women on charges of child (fetal) abuse-but only if they had used cocaine. The policy-that resulted in some pregnant and newly delivered women being taken out of the hospital in chains and shackles-was applied only to those women who used cocaine and none of the scores of other legal and illegal substances that women used that caused potential damage to future children.

Children Requiring a Karing Community (C.R.A.C.K.), a program that offers $200 to women to be sterilized or undertake long-term birth control like Norplant or Depo-Provera if they use drugs, is another product of the crack baby scare. The program, created and spearheaded by a white, upper class woman, thrives on a rhetoric that speaks to the laziness and selfishness that has become the stereotype of the poor, black crack mother: C.R.A.C.K. literature reads “Don’t let a pregnancy get in the way of your habit.” These are just a few examples of the way that the representation of crack babies and their mothers trumped any medical or scientific truth-they were the truth in the war against poor women who use crack.

III. Facing Punishment

The Honorable Frank Eppes, a South Carolina Supreme Court judge, came to typify the attitude in South Carolina and elsewhere in the country that pregnant women who used drugs deserved the worst kind of punishment. In April 1992, a young African-American woman, Cornelia Whitner, appeared in front of Judge Eppes to plead guilty for child neglect after her baby tested positive for cocaine. Judge Eppes subjected Ms. Whitner to questioning that reflected extraordinary ignorance about the nature of addiction, and adopted the stigmatizing and medically meaningless label “crack baby.” Eppes’ words demonstrate his lack of compassion and his ability to humiliate a woman who already faces the burden of time in prison:

  Judge Eppes: Is this a crack baby? Why wouldn’t you just take a pistol and put it in your mouth and blow your head off? You wouldn’t do that, would you?11

Despite the fact that Ms. Whitner was in drug counseling since the birth of her child and her child was in good health, Judge Eppes decided to send Ms. Whitner to state prison for eight years. Ms. Whitner’s case was later heard by the United States Supreme Court, which decided to reject her appeal and hold that pregnant women who risk harm to their viable fetuses may be prosecuted under state child abuse laws. In February of 1994, yet another woman faced the attacks of Judge Eppes. This woman, Malissa Ann Crawley, was appealing an earlier decision that had been made to place her in jail for child neglect after she gave birth to a baby that tested positive for cocaine. Judge Eppes was skeptical of the appeal:

  Judge Eppes: I’m sick and tired of these girls having these bastard babies on crack cocaine and until they change the law, the law they gave me, it said I could put them in jail. I don’t know if they declared it unconstitutional or not but don’t do drugs and don’t have another baby. How many you got?

  Ms. Crawley: Three

  Eppes: How many daddies?

  Crawley: Three

  Eppes: See, three daddies, three babies. Poor little old things won’t never have a chance. They’ll be on drugs; they’ll be robbing; they be [sic] in the penitentiary. Nobody to take care of them. It’s awful.

  Crawley: I’ll be able to take care of these children.

Judge Eppes’ words demonstrate the impact of the images of the crack baby that existed at the time; without any firsthand knowledge of these women’s lives, he instead co-opts a public image of the crack-using mother and applies it to these women, regardless of whether or not his assumptions about the women were true. Additionally, his assumptions about ‘these girls’ is indicative of the racist sentiments of many of his peers in South Carolina who mercilessly prosecuted hundreds of women there, ignoring the underlying factors for why a woman might be driven to use drugs while she was pregnant. Judge Eppes’ attacks on drug-using pregnant women and their children were indeed misguided, yet these women still remain in prison and the myth of the crack baby still remains pervasive. His attacks are just one example of the way that the stereotype of the black, drug-using mother could be used to herd many women through the legal system without hesitation, subjecting them to the worst kind of humiliation and scorn.

III. Flat Truths: Images of Crack Mothers

While Judge Eppes’ words may be harsh, their sentiment is common. In fact, women across the country continue to be scorned and penalized for their drug use during pregnancy. Despite the evidence that suggests that these women are not actually harming their babies in the way once previously thought, these women bear the unfortunate burden of a negative representation-their photographs have seared their image into the public imagination. These photographs show women who are dirty, lazy, careless and poor, and who are incapable of taking care of themselves or their children. These photographs are of ‘crackheads,’ ‘welfare queens,’ ‘junkies’ and other-labeled women who we frequently single out and punish for their behavior. I will examine two photographs of women which demonstrate the way that the image of the crackhead, welfare queen and junkie can be branded into our minds in such a clever way as to make us ignore the reality of the life of a drug-using mother and the personal, social and economic forces that shape it.

The pages of Newsweek, Life, Time and other major newspapers and magazines from the period of the crack scare exhibit some interesting patterns of representation of pregnant drug-using women. Photographs of these women have a similar aesthetic and represent women who looked similar. Some common qualities of these women included their race (African-American), their appearance (usually messy or unkempt), their demeanor (oblivious to the camera; sometimes concentrating only on the drugs in their possession), and their surroundings (on the streets of a bad neighborhood or in a run-down house). The photographs are sometimes black and white, usually have dramatic angles (a woman, for example, was photographed from below), and usually dominated the page of an article. What is striking about the similarity between these photographs is that many of the same pictures reappeared in newspapers, magazines and videos more than once, and that many of the photographs were actually by the same photographer, Eugene Richards.

Eugene Richards’ images appear in Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, a book of photographs that document the impact of crack cocaine on three separate communities-North Philadelphia, the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn, and East New York.12 The book reflects Richards’ experience interacting with individuals who lived in these communities. Included in this book are several photographs of drug using mothers. Richards tells a story about the women in these landscapes that is especially penetrating and searing, documenting the effects of losing their children, coping with addiction and relapse, and selling and ultimately losing control over their bodies. But the women in Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue are not seen by Richards as much as they are watched, conveying the sense that they are completely absorbed in their drug use, and not in the potentially intrusive camera.

Richards’ photographs offer a dramatized image of a crack mother who appears oblivious to the world around her and to her children, and who cannot take care of herself or her children. They are strong examples of the way that single images can serve to create a flat stereotype-the crack mother-that remains persistent and consistent. One such photograph is of a pregnant woman who smokes crack while she sits on a small chair in an empty room. The same photograph also appears in the February 12, 1990 issue of Newsweek.

Here, the pregnant woman is lit by a window which does not appear in the camera, but which draws attention to her protruding belly. The woman sits in a dark, barren room. The only objects in the room are the chair (or table) on which the woman sits with her drug paraphernalia. She does not wear any shoes. Most of the woman’s face and her eyes are not visible. In fact, she seems to be staring directly at her crack pipe. The caption under the photograph reads “Tragic Start: Pregnant crack user.” This photograph aptly reflects the message of the article: crack mothers are not only responsible for the failure of their children, but that they remain distinct from them, and thus both responsible and without any control over their own situation. The second page of the Newsweek article has two larger photographs, one of a white woman teacher with “crack kids.” Below that picture is one of another white woman who is holding a black child, looking down at that child sadly. The photograph is reminiscent of the 1995 film Losing Isaiah, which stars Jessica Lange as the gentle and well-meaning white foster mother of a “crack baby” Isaiah, who had been born to a careless addict, played by Halle Berry. The movie, like the Newsweek article, finds its visual thrust by contrasting the unhealthy and unkempt crack-abusing mother with a gentle white woman who is far more capable of taking care of her ‘innocent’ black child. Richards’ mother serves then as a powerful counterpoint to the images of the white mothers, as her image is enhanced by dark shadows, which are contrasted against the large puff of smoke in the upper right hand corner of the photograph.

Another version of the photograph described above had also appeared in the September 1988 issue of Ms. Magazine in an article about the fragmentation of domesticity that occurs when women use crack cocaine.13 This article, which appears in a feminist magazine, speaks primarily to the terror of drug abuse in women’s lives. Inside the article, for example, is a photograph of a woman next to her burned house. The woman is in a hospital gown and holds a hand to her cheek. It is impossible not to notice a doll, which is buried in the rubble of her house, in the foreground of the photograph. Richards’ photograph, though, opens the article. The woman, this time seen from a distance, is sustained by the words, in big bold print, “CRACKED OUT.” A rumpled teddy bear is in the foreground of the photograph. The toys in each of the images echo one another, and the children are noticeably absent. If these women no longer notice the toys, which have become debris in their own homes, then how they might notice their children?

Another Eugene Richards’ photograph of a crack mother appears in an article called “Children of the Damned” that appeared in a Life magazine story about the victimization of crack children.14 The opening spread of the article, which is doubly felt by Life’s imposing size, shows a mother smoking crack on the edge of a rumpled bed, her baby lying on the other edge of the bed crying. The caption of the photograph reads: “My baby always seems to know when the pipe comes out, and she just fights it,” says Denise, “It makes me want to hurt her.” This article documents vignettes of the life of children in South Philadelphia and argues that these children have been abandoned by their careless, drug-using parents. The author of the article notes: “Responsible for thousands of dollars in cash and drugs by street bosses they fear yet yearn to emulate, they will become a generation beyond reach and beyond hope.” The opening photograph, then, supports a claim about the displacement of the mother from her child. The clear distance between the mother and her child, which is spatially defined by the rumpled bed-sheets, helps to open a narrative about the demise of the mother in the inner city.

The two photographs discussed above are just two examples of an entire library of photographs of crack mothers that exists as a testament to the profound impact that photography can have on making an idea become truth. Photography has long been used to document the ‘reality’ of poverty. I use the word ‘reality’ in quotes here because the equation of photography and truth is in fact tenuous. These photographs are actually reflective of an entire system of belief of the photographer, the magazine, and the individuals who choose to look at the photographs. The choice of black and white or color photography, the angle from which the photograph is taken, the context in which it is taken (an individual snapshot or part of an exploration of a neighborhood, for example), the choice of caption, the subject of the article in which it appears-all of these factors give a particular meaning to a photograph. Therefore, the ‘reality’ of the crack mothers we see is highly mediated by all of these factors, and as such, has helped to shape what has become the fiction of the crack mother. It is this fiction that we heard in the words of Judge Frank Eppes as he admonished the woman who stood before him in his courtroom.

It is no coincidence, then, that the photographs taken by Eugene Richards reappeared in several magazines during the crack scare. Not only did the multiple use of these photographs represent the way in which a single image could serve to implant a stereotype in our minds, it also speaks to the way that the single images could be used to several different ends. In other words, each photograph by Richards could represent a different ‘truth’ about the crack mother, but could ultimately result in a singular reaction-to persecute and punish, not treat, the crack mother.

What was missing from these pictures was a documentation of the social and economic policies and personal and community context that causes-or forces—many pregnant women to use crack. If we had been able to see images of the violence that surrounded these women, of their neighborhood, of the wealth and inequality that existed elsewhere in the cities in which these women lived, then these photographs might have a different meaning. Instead, photographs of these women reduce their histories to the individual actions of the crack mother. In reality, the truth is far more complicated. By making this invisible context visible, we do far more than documenting a phenomenon; rather, we begin to see the truth about these women.

IV. Conclusion

Although crack cocaine use is not as visibly documented today, we have learned some cautionary tales from our experience seeing this drug and its impact in the popular media in the 1980s. Methamphetamine use has been widely documented in recent years, and punitive policies have been developed in response to the representation of “ice babies” or “meth babies.”15 Fortunately, medical and scientific professionals are responding to recent mischaracterizations of these children. A recent open letter to the media signed by close to one hundred prestigious scientific and medical professionals notes:

As medical and psychological researchers, with many years of experience studying prenatal exposure to psychoactive substances, and as medical researchers, treatment providers and specialists with many years of experience studying addictions and addiction treatment, we are writing to request that policies addressing prenatal exposure to methamphetamines and media coverage of this issue be based on science, not presumption or prejudice.16

This letter signals an important sea change that is taking place in the realignment of professional thinking about pregnant women who use drugs. However, it is clear that women who use drugs while they are pregnant continue to be misrepresented by the media.

The representation of these crack and meth mothers comes at a time when the ideology of ‘family’ is most fragile, most threatened. The image of the crack mother’s protruding belly does violence to the national image of ‘family,’ of motherhood, safety and purity. The foreign substance-cocaine and methamphetamine-literally invades the national body. It inflicts and embeds itself in the nation in an unmistakeable way. The crack mother’s image has become a weapon to be used to fight the War on Drugs, but ultimately the war on poor people and people of color. The continued reproduction of these images, and these children, assists in the continued proliferation of policies that negatively impact the health and well-being of entire communities across the country.


1 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1998 (Washington DC: US Department of Justice, August 1999), p. 343, Table 4.10, p. 435, Table 5.48, and p. 505, Table 6.52; Beck, Allen J., Ph.D. and Mumola, Christopher J., Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 1998 (Washington DC: US Department of Justice, August 1999), p. 10, Table 16; Beck, Allen J., PhD, and Paige M. Harrison, US Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (Washington, DC: US Dept. of Justice, August 2001), p. 11, Table 16.

2 Harrison, Paige M., & Allen J. Beck, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2004 (Washington, DC: US Dept. of Justice, April 2005), p. 11.

3 Sheigla B. Murphy and Marsha Rosenbaum, “Two Women Who Used Cocaine Too Much,” in Reinarman and Levine, eds. Crack in America, p. 101.

4 Sheigla Murphy and Marsha Rosenbaum. Pregnant Women on Drugs. New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1999.

5 Charles Krauthammer, “Bio-underclass: a horror beyond Huxley’s imagination.” Hartford Courant, August 2, 1989.

6 Sheigla Murphy and Marsha Rosenbaum. Pregnant Women on Drugs. New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1999. 153.

7 Chasnoff IJ, Burns WF, Schnoll WJ, Burns KA. “Cocaine use in Pregnancy.” New England Journal of Medicine 1985; 313: 666-669.

8 Alexandra Eyle, ed. “An Interview with Dr. Ira Chasnoff,” The Reconsider Quarterly, Spring 2000.

9 Deborah A. Frank, Marilyn Augustyn, et al., “Growth, Development, and Behavior in Early Childhood Following Prenatal Cocaine Exposure: A Systematic Review.” JAMA, March 28, 2001, Vol. 285, No. 12, 1613-1625.

10 The devastating effects of tobacco on a pregnancy have been well documented. See, for example: JAMA patient page: Smoking and Pregnancy, (

11 Transcript, Sentencing of Cornelia Whitner.

12 Eugene Richards, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue (New York: Aperture Foundation, 1994)

13 Elizabeth Wynhausen, “Cracked Out,” Ms. September 1998.

14 Edward Barnes, “Children of the Damned,” Life, June 1990.

15 “Meth Science Not Stigma: Open Letter to the Media,” July 25, 2005, David Lewis, et al. (

16 Ibid.