Earlier this year, Tennessee passed controversial legislation allowing the state to criminally charge mothers for using narcotics while pregnant, calling it "assault" against the fetus. This past week, a new mother became the first woman to be prosecuted under that law after her newborn tested positive for amphetamine.
According to the law, a woman can be prosecuted for an assaultive offense "if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug" or for homicidal offense "if her child dies as a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant."
Mallory Loyola was arrested last week after both she and her newborn child tested positive for meth; she later admitted to smoking the drug days before giving birth. "Anytime someone is addicted and they can't get off for their own child, their own flesh and blood, it's sad," Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens told ABC News when asked about the charge. "Hopefully it will send a signal to other women who are pregnant and have a drug problem to seek help. That's what we want them to do."
However, critics of the law argue that it has the exact opposite effect: by criminalizing drug use during pregnancy, Tennessee is actually preventing pregnant women who struggle with substance abuse issues from coming forward and getting assistance. Every major medical organization — including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists — has come out against laws that prosecute and punish pregnant women for this very reason.
As the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists puts it:
"Seeking obstetric–gynecologic care should not expose a woman to criminal or civil penalties, such as incarceration, involuntary commitment, loss of custody of her children, or loss of housing. These approaches treat addiction as a moral failing...
Pregnant women should not be punished for adverse perinatal outcomes. The relationship between maternal behavior and perinatal outcome is not fully understood, and punitive approaches threaten to dissuade pregnant women from seeking health care and ultimately undermine the health of pregnant women and their fetuses."
The logic that dictates that we should punish mothers for drug use is a vestige of the "crack baby epidemic" panic, which, you know, wasn't actually a scientifically-proven thing. In reality, we still don't really understand the effects of exposing fetuses to illegal drugs in the womb — obviously, it's better to not take drugs while pregnant, but selectively punishing for illegal narcotics use is both arbitrary and misguided. As Tara Culp-Ressler points out at Think Progress, "studies have found that exposing fetuses to cocaine, meth, and opiates is about as harmful as exposing them to cigarettes." Furthermore, data from Tennessee show that 60 percent of babies who experience drug withdrawal after birth develop the condition as a result of their mothers' prescription drug use, which isn't criminalized under this law.
One thing we do know for sure: threatening to lock up pregnant women with addiction issues puts their health at risk. "These punitive measures are ineffective," Rebecca Terrell, the chair of Healthy and Free Tennessee, told Think Progress. "We are already receiving reports of women seeking out non-licensed health providers to avoid having a medical record and risking arrest. This is extremely dangerous." In order to "save" the unborn, Tennessee is making it so that pregnant women in need of help are afraid to seek prenatal care and/or necessary treatment for addiction. Whom, exactly, does this law serve?
And thus "IGNORE THE EXPERTS' OPINION; SACRIFICE WOMEN'S HEALTH AND MEDICAL PRIVACY BECAUSE FETUSES!" continues to be our great nation's unofficial motto.
Image via Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock.