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Tennessee Arrests First Mother Under its New Pregnancy Criminalization Law

Tennessee Arrests First Mother Under its New Pregnancy Criminalization Law

Written by Tara Culp-Ressler

At the beginning of July, 26-year-old Mallory Loyola gave birth to a baby girl. Two days later, the state of Tennessee charged her with assault. Loyola is the first woman to be arrested under a new law in Tennessee that allows the state to criminally charge mothers for potentially causing harm to their fetuses by using drugs.

The legislation, which officially took effect about a week ago, stipulates that “a woman may be prosecuted for assault for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug.” However, this may not actually apply to Loyola’s case. So far, there’s no evidence the young woman either used a narcotic drug or caused harm to her newborn child.

According to local news reports, Loyola tested positive for methamphetamine and admitted that she smoked that drug several days before giving birth. Meth is not considered to be a narcotic, which is a class of drugs that refers to opiates like heroin and prescription painkillers. Tennessee’s new law was passed specifically in response to fears about babies being exposed to opiates in utero, something that can lead to “Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.”

“This law was sold as if it were just about illegal narcotics. But sure enough, the first case has nothing to do with illegal narcotics — and nothing actually to do with harm to anybody,” Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), one of the groups that’s firmly opposed to laws that criminalize drug use during pregnancy, told ThinkProgress. “There’s no injury. There’s just a positive drug test.”

The opposition to the new state law, which is the first of its kind in the country, isn’t driven solely by Paltrow’s group. Every major medical organization — including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Public Health Association — has come out against efforts to arrest pregnant women who use drugs. A diverse coalition of reproductive rights and criminal justice groups in Tennessee launched a huge campaign against the proposed legislation, called “Healthcare Not Handcuffs,” to point out that threatening women with criminal charges dissuades them from coming forward to get the medical help they need.

“These punitive measures are proven to be ineffective, and yet our state chooses to waste tax dollars locking up women instead of getting them the health care they need,” Rebecca Terrell, the chair of Healthy and Free Tennessee, one of the groups involved in the opposition campaign, told ThinkProgress via email. “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.”

It’s not uncommon for women to be arrested for testing positive for drugs either while pregnant or shortly after giving birth. This particular criminal approach is animated by the 1980s era image of the “crack baby.” However, there’s no scientific evidence that being exposed to illegal drugs in the womb actually causes long-lasting health issues in young children. In fact, studies have found that exposing fetuses to cocaine, meth, and opiates isabout as harmful as exposing them to cigarettes.

Although medical professionals would obviously prefer that pregnant women don’t use drugs, advocacy groups like NAPW argue that charging them with criminal negligence for doing so is a gross overreach — and one that strips women of their fundamental rights once they become pregnant.

“This view of pregnant women essentially means that as soon as you’re carrying a fertilized egg, you’ve lost your medical privacy and your right to make medical decisions,” Paltrow pointed out. “But all matters concerning pregnancy are health care matters. Pregnancy, like other health issues, should be addressed through the public health system and not through the criminal punishment system or the civil child welfare system.”

Plus, the criminalization of pregnant women disproportionately impacts low-income women of color who often end uplosing custody of their children. The vast majority of cases that NAPW has tracked involve African American mothers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is currently seeking plaintiffs to challenge the state’s new law. “This dangerous law unconstitutionally singles out new mothers struggling with addiction for criminal assault charges,” the group notes in a statement, encouraging people who are concerned about the impact that the measure will have on their families to get in touch.

This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress

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Photo Credit: Thinkstock

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185 comments

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3:02AM PDT on Mar 30, 2015

Arguments can be made for both sides of this debate and I'll leave that to others.

However, I must comment on the statement "In fact, studies have found that exposing fetuses to cocaine, meth, and opiates is about as harmful as exposing them to cigarettes".
What a ridiculous, politically correct lie.
Firstly, cigarettes are legal, so it is unlikely that smokers will be committing crimes, not eating properly, living in wretched, filthy conditions, hanging out with violent, dangerous people, and all the other issues that regularly go with illegal drug use and adversely affect mothers and babies.
Secondly, people of many generations all over the world grew up with the vast majority of mothers smoking, including during pregnancy, and lived to tell the tale, just fine. Of course now we know better, and that's great.
To suggest that smoking a few ciggies is the same as shooting up meth is just ridiculous. Have another look at the "1980's image" of the crack baby. It's heartbreaking.

11:19AM PST on Dec 7, 2014

These "laws" do not improve anyones life.

4:45PM PDT on Sep 13, 2014

I'm very sad things like this is going on in the world today , we need better legislation on issues like these and appropriate measures taken for all parties involved ...

9:38PM PDT on Aug 27, 2014

Had a stupid neighbor once that shot his pregnant wife up with meth and killed their baby instantly. She miscarried right there on the spot. Have a friend who's son shot up a massive amount a meth and beat his brains out on the pavement convulsing from seizures and died. Think about it. Pretty crazy, huh? Just say nope to dope folks.

7:33PM PDT on Aug 23, 2014

Drugs are poison

6:38PM PDT on Aug 18, 2014

Wow! I understand this one. The abortion bans, I don't understand, but I get this.

10:20AM PDT on Jul 25, 2014

What sort of a mother would a drug addict be? You might be doing her a big favor by locking her up and getting her off of meth. Long term use of meth can cause permanent damage and changes to the brain. Are you trying to argue that it is ok for a pregnant person to use the most dangerous addictive drugs out there? " MA use in utero is believed to affect the development of a baby’s brain, spinal cord, heart, and kidney. Studies have found short-term symptoms to include prenatal complications, such as premature delivery and birth deformities, along with strokes and brain hemorrhages prior to birth. Other investigations have revealed short-term neonatal outcomes to include small deficits in infant neurobehavioral function and growth restriction when compared to control infants.[4] Also, prenatal MA use is believed to have long-term effects in terms of brain development, which may last for many years."

1:20PM PDT on Jul 24, 2014

There are many dangers for our youngest, from gamete stage through adulthood. Almost none of those dangers are their mothers. Even, as the article explains, self medicating mothers.
The cries that people attacking mothers are "protecting children" rings chillingly hollow.

8:37AM PDT on Jul 18, 2014

I live in TN and agreed that is was supposed to apply to narcotics. while Meth is NOT a narcotic per se, it is very harmful to both mother and child. I also agree that she probably NOT go to jail, at least if there is no verifiable damage to the child, which would make the situation different.
Kevin, in his attempt to be the compassionate Liberal flag bearer, again denies the rights of the unborn children. If that child was a girl, would that be consider a war on women? Not really ,but so many of the lefts attacks against the right are not much different.
This isn't a war on women either, but it is a war on children, which may be even worse. The effects of a mother's actions during pregnancy DO have lasting impact on children, including death for those who promote late term abortions.

8:05AM PDT on Jul 17, 2014

How can any sane individual think smoking meth is ok! I think they should put mom's in rehab not in jail but babies need protected.

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