Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Crack babies" and Death

Continuing Joel Best's Damned Lies and Statistics; Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists today. He makes an interesting observation about a moral panic that struck the US in the late 1980s over 'crack babies' - children born to mothers who were addicted to crack cocaine and who were believed to be badly disturbed, physically retarded and mentally deficient.

I immediately thought of Living Monstrosity, a 1990 track by American death metal pioneers Death. The lyrics of Living Monstrosity had always puzzled me:
The guilty one, innocent she now cries
A life of hell, better off to die
Born without eyes, hands, and a half a brain
Being born addicted to cocaine

Living monstrosity
A freak for life they'll always be
Never knowing love or hate
Only pain the drug creates

This is a typical grimy tone for death metal but I had never heard before the idea that drug-addicted mothers would give birth to severely, monstrously deformed children for whom death would be better than life. In this case Death's singer saw the act as a grave crime by the mother: 'An example we should make out of theses creators of misfortune'.

But Joel Best explains that the crack babies terror was unfounded. While 1980s advocates warned that 375,000 such children were being born each year, at a cost to the US of '$500 million or $3 billion or $20 billion annually', in reality the number was only around 30-50,000 and:
...crack babies did not exhibit the kinds of unique, permanent damage that had been predicted.... Because mothers addicted to crack tended to be impoverished, they often had poor nutrition and inadequate medical care during their pregnancies, and their babies faced considerable disadvantages. But children born addicted to crack did not have more severe problems than other, nonaddicted children born in similar circumstances.
So Death needn't have panicked and demanded justice. In our own time we have other scares based on exaggerated threats: child abduction, bird flu, ecstacy, paedophile priests and the like. It's fascinating to see these old, forgotten panics, a good reminder that the fashionable scares of today should be viewed critically. Plus I managed to squeeze a death metal reference into a post on statistics and media scares, and that pleases me.

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