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Assault Charges for Pregnant Drug Users Set to Stop in Tennessee

Around 100 women have been charged under the 2014 law so far.

storyvillegirl/Flickrstoryvillegirl/FlickrA controversial Tennessee law criminalizing mothers of newborns who test positive for narcotics is set to expire this summer, after lawmakers failed to re-authorize the law this week. Under the measure, passed in 2014, Tennessee women can be charged with assault—punishable by up to 15 years in prison—for giving birth to an infant "addicted to or harmed by" a narcotic drug. 

The law is controversial because no one wants to condone drug use by pregnant women. But opponents of the law—including the American Medical Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and those of us who covered it here at Reason—argue that criminalization isn't the answer, as threatening drug-dependent women with jail only discourages them from seeking things like prenatal care and addiction treatment, or from giving birth in hospitals. 

What's more, laws like this aren't just used against those who actually cause their babies harm (despite the statutory language). In July 2014, the first woman to be charged under the new law, Mallory Loyola, was arrested after her newborn tested positive for methamphetamine. But the baby was born healthy, and according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, there "is no syndrome or disorder that can specifically be identified for babies who were exposed in utero to methamphetamine." Meanwhile, alcohol poses a great risk to fetuses, at least when consumed excess of a certain amount. Yet, as Jacob Sullum noted, "while an expectant mother who drinks a glass of wine in public might attract glares from busybodies, she probably will not attract attention from the police." 

The charges against Loyola were eventually dropped after she completed a rehab program. But many more women have been arrested since her—around 100, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Meanwhile, the number of Tennessee newborns who test positive for narcotics has, at least at some hospitals, only increased. And at places such as the University of Tennessee Medical Center, the incidence of deliveries outside the hospital has almost doubled, staff say. 

The Tennessee fetal assault law will expire July 1, 2016, if no further action is taken by state legislators. 

Photo Credit: storyvillegirl/Flickr

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  • ||

    The law is controversial because no one wants to condone drug use by pregant [sic] women.

    Let me be the first to step up and condone drug use by everyone, pregnant women included.

  • Elizabeth Nolan Brown||

    Well I want pregnant women to use drugs, just not pregant women!

    (gawd our spell check sucks)

  • ||

    You're terrible. But you write good articles so we should probably let it go, else we'll only get to read about Trump all day every day.

  • SugarFree||

    Don't praise the "affirmative action hire," Hyperion.

  • SugarFree||

  • A Cynic's Guide to Zen||

    My client's statements were mere flippancy.

    Flippancy, I tell you.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    In my old organization, you would be what we'd have called the "Substance Abuse Advocate".

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    We're going to reach a point in this country where, for better or worse, the government will figure out that criminalizing your behavior only has so much bang for the buck. There's much more value in involving you in ongoing counseling, mandatory classes and behavioral therapy. It takes a Village, you see.

  • ||

    punishable by up to 15 years in prison—for giving birth to an infant "addicted to or harmed by" a narcotic drug

    Well, if the child wasn't harmed by the drug use while in the womb, gotta at least punish the little fuck by locking up their mom as soon as they're born. That'll teach em a lesson.

  • A Cynic's Guide to Zen||

    My problem with this "let them do what they want while pregnant" stuff comes from a Tort perspective.

    People can hold manufacturers of forceps liable when they break off in someone's back; they can also hold the warehouse liable, the doctors liable, etc. There are even cases where pharmaceutical companies are having to pay children of women who were exposed to their chemicals, for birth defects, which are massive damages payouts. If the law is applied unevenly, in my view, the law should be rewritten. Thus, if a mother gives birth to a baby with defects or addiction, the mother should be liable to the child for damages, OR, there should not be a "birth defect" recovery avenue available to the child (fair is fair).

    I believe the drafting against mothers doing "whatever they feel like" while pregnant was probably for deterrence in order to reconcile the obvious disparity between liability of companies and non-liability of a mother. Where does the crippled or deformed child recover?

  • A Cynic's Guide to Zen||

    Conceding that there are mothers who, despite a total lack of "misconduct" on their part, give birth to deformed or disabled children through no fault of their own.

    You see the dilemma.

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