I have not found a direct correlation between eugenic sciences and the sterilizations of women of color that occurred after World War II. However, the eugenic themes of the first half of the century repeat themselves in racist themes. When Ronald Reagan coined the term “welfare queen,” he conjured familiar images that played on white assumptions and fears. In the current white imagination, criminal tendencies, dependency on the state, genetic inferiority, poverty and sexual promiscuity are traits almost exclusively held by African Americans. It does not matter that more whites than blacks receive welfare. When most middle-class people think of welfare, they think of poor black people. Even though a higher percentage of white women than black women use drugs while pregnant, the white imagination conjures images of black, drug-addled, negligent mothers. This stereotype gave birth to the myth of the crack baby.
In September 1985, Dr. Ira Chasnoff published of the University of Illinois published an article in The New England Journal of Medicine describing “his findings that babies born to cocaine-using mothers remained smaller, sicker, moodier, and less social than other infants.” Chasnoff’s report was not thorough – he only studied twenty-three children. His intent in publishing his analysis was to invite further studies by other experts. Despite this, his incomplete findings became headline news, giving birth to the myth of the crack baby.
Black and white Americans use cocaine at the same rates. However, a higher percentage of African Americans use it in crack form. Still, more whites than blacks use crack. Yet, in the 1980s, the media focus was on black crack use. The media led the public to perceive crack as exclusively African American. Thus, when Chasnoff published his report, the crack baby myth emerged as a black phenomenon. As Harriet Washington writes in her book Medical Apartheid, “During eighteen years as a news and science editor at metropolitan dailies and national magazines, I have never seen a published photograph of a white crack baby.”
In response to the crack-baby fantasy, neo-conservative Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post, “The inner-class crack epidemic is now giving birth to the newest horror: a bio-underclass, a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.” He went on to write that “Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probably deviance, of permanent inferiority . . . The dead babies may be the lucky ones.” Another conservative wrote, “This is not stuff that Head Start can fix. This is permanent brain damage. Whether it is 5 percent or 15 percent of the black community, it is there.”
Even though the myth of the crack baby was debunked by Chicago’s National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research, in 1997 a group of citizens began offering women who use drugs $200 to allow themselves to be temporarily sterilized by long-term birth control or permanently sterilized by surgery. The organization, Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (CRACK), put up a billboard in a black neighborhood in California that read, “Don’t Let a Pregnancy Ruin Your Drug Habit.” The organization received far more press and monetary support than any organization attempting to assist poor mother or provide drug treatment. It played on racist myths and eugenic beliefs.
Powerful organizations that have historical roots in eugenic science still exist today. For example, the Population Council’s first president was Frederick Osborn who was a leader in the eugenics movement in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Population Council is a foundation that researches and tests contraceptives on poor women of color abroad before they release the birth control device in the United States. The Population Council created the birth control device Norplant and when it received FDA approval, the Council introduced it into African American neighborhoods. Norplant consists of six small rods that a doctor surgically implants in a woman’s upper arm that releases a form of the hormone progesterone into the bloodstream for five years after which, if the woman chooses, the doctor replaces the rods.
As Harriet Washington writes in her book Medical Apartheid, “Norplant was selectively marketed not only to poor black women but also to thousands of young black girls. The 50 thousand Norplant kits implanted from 1991 to 1992 included some for black teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19.” Because of Baltimore’s high pregnancy rate among African American teenagers, clinic workers in schools in Baltimore began implanting young girls with Norplant without parental approval. The Population Council pressured the school clinics to get as many girls as possible to agree to Norplant implantations so that they would have accurate test results.
Norplant posed other problems. Like sterilization, judges used it coercively, offering women choices between Norplant implantations and long jail terms. Furthermore, Medicaid would eagerly pay for implantation, but it was harder for women who wanted Norplant taken out to get Medicaid to cover its removal. Eventually, there were so many lawsuits by women dissatisfied with the side effects of Norplant that it was removed from the market in the United States.
Norplant appealed to thinly veiled eugenic ideals. A Philadelphia Inquirer article entitled, “Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass” went on to say, “The main reason more black children are living in poverty is that people having more children are the ones least capable of supporting them.” Here Washington counters, “More black children are living in poverty, but the black teen pregnancy rate is falling.” The fact that this editorial applauded Norplant use as a tool to reduce a particular population, that judges used it coercively against black women, and that former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke exclaimed that Norplant was a good way to decrease the inner city population betrays a potential eugenic intent on the part of Norplant’s creators.