“Heroin Mothers,” “Methadone Babies,” and the Medical Controversy over Methadone Maintenance in the Early 1970s

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December 27, 2022

This article situates the emergence of sensationalized news reports of “infant addicts” and the concurrently evolving study of neonatal drug withdrawal within the context of the expansion of methadone maintenance treatment (MMT) in the United States. It details how, in the early 1970s, concerns about pregnant narcotic addicts and their infants became part of the politically charged debate over methadone maintenance. The popular press amplified the apprehensions of a vocal group of pediatricians who saw in infants’ withdrawal an indication of methadone’s inherent harmfulness and potential toxicity. Increased access to MMT and its presumed normalizing effects on reproductive functions augmented these concerns. The ensuing controversy led clinical researchers to define, measure, and systematically study “neonatal abstinence syndrome,” whereas the emerging media trope of the infant drug addict effectively undermined the claims made by MMT’s proponents about the drug’s therapeutic utility.