Outrage: Tennessee Arrests Its First Woman Under its New Pregnancy Criminalization Law

They're locking women up for drug use instead of getting them the health care they need.

Photo Credit: Jerry Sharp / Shutterstock.com

Two days after she gave birth to a healthy baby, 26-year-old Mallory Loyola of Tennessee was arrested. She was the first person to be charged under a law that went into place last week, which criminalizes women for narcotic drug use while pregnant. Tennesse's is the first U.S. law to directly criminalize pregnant women for their actions while pregnant, and has been widely criticized. The frightening implication of the law for women is that once one of your eggs is fertilized—accidentally or not, and whether you’re aware you’re pregnant or not—there goes your right to medical privacy.

“Our state chooses to waste tax dollars locking up women instead of getting them the health care they need,” Rebecca Terrell, chair of Healthy and Free Tennessee, told ThinkProgress via email according to a recent article. “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.”

Healthy and Free Tennessee is a vocal opponent of the law, which states 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.”

The local news has reported that methamphetamines showed up in Loyola’s blood, but no narcotics to speak of, so it is possible that she will not be prosecuted. 

As the ThinkProgress article notes, “this [new law] 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.”

Lynn Paltrow is executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW),  is against the criminalization of pregnant women who use drugs. She toldThinkProgress:

“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. There’s no injury. There’s just a positive drug test.”

There is no scientific evidence that a mother’s use of illegal drugs while pregnant has serious long term effects on the child, as ThinkProgressreported. “In fact, studies have found that exposing fetuses to cocaine, meth, and opiates is about as harmful as exposing them to cigarettes.”

Tennessee’s American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the new law, which targets low-income women of color disproportionately.

“The vast majority of cases that NAPW has tracked involve African American mothers,” ThinkProgressreported.

As Paltrow points out, pregnancy should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal one.

“All matters concerning pregnancy are health care matters,” she said to ThinkProgress. “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."

April M. Short is a freelance writer who focuses on health, wellness and social justice. She previously worked as AlterNet's drugs and health editor.