Misconceiving Mothers: Legislators, Prosecutors, and the Politics of Prenatal Drug Exposure
by Laura Gomez
Temple University Press, 1997
Paper: 978-1-56639-558-8 | Cloth: 978-1-56639-557-1
Library of Congress Classification HV5824.W6G66 1997
Dewey Decimal Classification 362.29082

ABOUT THIS BOOK | AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY | TOC
ABOUT THIS BOOK
A tiny African-American baby lies in a hospital incubator, tubes protruding from his nostrils, head, and limbs. "He couldn't take the hit," the caption warns. "If you're pregnant, don't take drugs." Ten years earlier, this billboard would have been largely unintelligible to many of us. But when it appeared in 1991, it immediately conjured up several powerful images: the helpless infant himself; his unseen environment, a newborn intensive care unit filled with babies crying inconsolably; and the mother who did this -- crack-addicted and unrepentant.

Misconceiving Mothers is a case study of how public policy about reproduction and crime is made. Laura E. Gomez uses secondary research and first-hand interviews with legislators and prosecutors to examine attitudes toward the criminalization and/or medicalization of drug use during pregnancy by the legislature and criminal justice systems in California. She traces how an initial tendency toward criminalization gave way to a trend toward seeing the problem of "crack babies" as an issue of social welfare and public health.

It  is no surprise that in an atmosphere of mother-blaming, particularly targeted at poor women and women of color, "crack babies" so easily captured the American popular imagination in the late 1980s. What is surprising is the was prenatal drug exposure came to be institutionalized in the state apparatus. Gomez attributes this circumstance to four interrelated cause: the gendered nature of the social problem; the recasting of the problem as fundamentally "medical" rather than "criminal"; the dynamic nature of t he process of institutionalization; and the specific feature of the legal institutions -- that is, the legislature and prosecutors' offices -- the became prominent in the case.

At one level Misconceiving Mothers tells the story of a particular problem at a particular time and place -- how the California legislature and district attorneys grappled with pregnant women's  drug use in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At another level, the book tells a more general story about the political nature of contemporary social problems. The story it tells is political not just because it deals with the character of political institutions but because the process itself and the nature of the claims-making concern the power to control the allocation of state resources.

A number of studies have looked at how the initial criminalization of social problems takes place. Misconceiving Mothers looks at the process by which a criminalized social problem is institutionalized through the attitudes and policies of elite decision-makers.

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