Ironically this story takes place in Mississippi, a state notorious for sterilizing thousands of black women without their knowledge. Involuntary sterilization was so widespread there the procedure became know as a Mississippi Appendectomy. This massive assault on the reproductive rights and bodies of black women was publicized by the great civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, who was victimized by a racist with a scalpel and a medical degree in the Sunflower City Hospital in 1961 while undergoing surgery to have a small uterine tumor removed. Without her knowledge and consent she was subjected to a complete hysterectomy.
Rennie Gibbs, the fifteen year old charged with murder in this case, is being prosecuted for the miscarriage and death of her baby at 36 weeks because it was discovered she used cocaine while she was pregnant. She is the first woman to be charged with “depraved-heart-murder” in Mississippi relating to the loss of an unborn child. She faces a life sentence without the possibility of parole, and this is without any evidence that cocaine was responsible for the miscarriage or death of her baby.
Now I don’t know if Rennie Gibbs is black. But I do know conservatives have created and exploited the myth of crack babies since 1985 as a means to demonize, criminalize and punish black mothers in particular. The notion of “crack babies was sensationalized and popularized in a Washington Post article by columnist Charles Krauthammer in 1989. Krauthammer claimed: “The inner-city 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.”
What followed his hyperbolic rhetoric and outright lies was an avalanche of similar media coverage that even black folks bought into without question (“crack babies” immediately became a staple of black comedians and comedy). The fact is there has never been a “crack baby” in the history of medicine. According to a research study from the National Association of Perinatal Addiction that looked at 300 children exposed to crack before birth, the overwhelming majority of those infants came into the world as healthy as others born into poverty. The only verifiable fetal defects linked to exposure to cocaine, even when the drug was used in high doses, were low birthweight and small size. In 1992 the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published an editorial that condemned those who had created the myth of “crack babies” and who fed the public hysteria with graphic articles about the long-term consequences for the lives of those children. In 1998 Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting published this article to debunk the myth of the “crack baby” and expose the false stories that continued to circulate in the media.
Why did the myth persist despite evidence to the contrary?
One of the reasons is that it provided a pretext to promote the sterilization of black women. A group called CRACK (Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity) was formed in 1997 with a goal of offering drug-addicted men and women money in exchange for undergoing sterilization. Now known as Project Prevention, the group, recognizing the sensitive nature of the issue in the black community, initially refused to provide data on the ethnic make-up of their clients. They now offer the following data on their website:
“The following are the statistics as of October 17th, 2010:
The following numbers were obtained through our Client Survey Form which all participants fill out. These numbers are prior to obtaining long-term birth control through our program:
- 3,706 – Total number of paid clients.
- 16,726 – Total number of pregnancies. (Not including miscarriages)
- 11,995 – Total number of births (some resulted in multiple births).
- 4,841 – Total number of abortions
- 782 – Stillborn births. Also, another 446 had very brief lives, dying soon after birth from complications.
- 5,822 – Total number of these children remaining in foster care to date.
- 1,059 have chosen Depo-Provera, 1,357 Tubal Ligation, 963 IUD, 191 Implanon, 38 Norplant, and 59 Vasectomies.
- 1,877 clients have been Caucasian, 948 African-American, 479 Hispanic, and 402 of other ethnic backgrounds.”
It is not possible to determine from the data they provide how many “blacks” have been sterilized as opposed to receiving birth control. What we can discern is that blacks constitute 34% of their clients while only comprising 12.6 percent of the U.S. population. When you add in Hispanics and “others” the percentage of “non-Caucasian” clients on their roster rises to 49.3% or half.
The rates for drug use in the U.S. in 2008 were: 14.7 percent for persons reporting two or more races, 10.1 percent for blacks, 9.5 percent for American Indians or Alaska Natives, 8.2 percent for whites, 7.3 percent of Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders, and 6.2 percent for Hispanics.” Source: Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/nsduh/2k8nsduh/2k8Results.pdf
The rates of reported drug use and abuse by blacks and whites differs by about 2 percentage points. Yet the rates of arrest, conviction and incarceration for drug crimes in the U.S. clearly don’t reveal that fact at all. The so-called “war on drugs” is a war on blacks, Latinos, and poor whites who can’t afford lawyers.
All this is not to say there are not serious risks from using cocaine during pregnancy. And that drug addicts should not consider using birth control to prevent the birth of children they are incapable of caring for. But given the history of black women being targeted for involuntary sterilizations, it behooves us to be vigilant and scrutinize the motives of those organizations that promote such services and those state governments that use prosecutions to accomplish the same ends. Project Prevention claims it cares for their clients. But that claim is contradicted by one of their former slogans that seems to advocate continued addiction over rehabilitation: “Don’t Let a Pregnancy Ruin Your Drug Habit.”
Finally, it is possible to recover from a drug addition and lead a healthy and productive life. It is not possible to “recover” from sterilization.