Starting July 1st of this year, women in Tennessee who use drugs during pregnancy can be charged with assault. I have worked with children who were born with drugs in their system, and it is as if their mother’s have put a permanent roadblock to their success. As a child advocate, this law makes sense to me. As a woman, it terrifies me.
Every year, thousands of babies are born with drugs in their systems. Long-term health implications include low birth weight, risk of developmental problems, mental retardation, and seizures, among others. From a financial standpoint, the average hospital bill for a child born exposed to drugs is close to $60,000, and ongoing health issues will keep piling up. Babies born exposed to drugs often enter the child welfare system, which has it’s own extensive host of problems and costs.
That said, criminalizing drug use during pregnancy is the wrong fix. First of all, as critics of the law have pointed out, it makes women who are drug addicts less likely to come forward for treatment. It also encourages pregnant women to terminate a pregnancy they might otherwise have carried to term or give birth outside of a hospital where a baby might not be tested. This explains why every major medical organization has denounced the criminalization of drug use by pregnant women.
Criminalizing what a woman does to her own body has dire consequences for a woman’s right to privacy and her right to control her own body. It opens the door to other kinds of controls. What about when a pregnant woman eats deli meat or soft cheese? Bacteria in deli meats and soft cheeses can cause miscarriage, should the law control what a pregnant woman can eat? What about a woman who takes a hot bath or drink a glass of wine? A hot bath can cause stress to the fetus and alcohol consumption can cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, should the law control otherwise legal behavior just for pregnant women?
Interestingly enough, the first woman arrested under the new law was charged under a reading that would require an expansion of the law. The law provides “a woman may be prosecuted for an assaultive offense for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug and the addiction or harm is a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant.” The law specifically allows prosecution for assault for the illegal use of a narcotic. The first woman arrested under the new law, Mallory Loyola, was arrested for using meth (an amphetamine, not a narcotic). Nonetheless, she was charged with assault, an offense that carries a fine of up to $2,500 and up to one year in jail. The fact that the very first woman charged under the law used a drug that isn’t even a narcotic indicates that Tennessee law enforcement has a broad view of what kinds of drugs should count under the new law. The nation is watching to see how the courts will respond.