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Should Pregnant Mom Be Jailed For Smoking Meth?

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Mallory Loyola tested positive for methamphetamine and now her case is at the center of a large debate.

Mallory Loyola

Reported by April V. Taylor

Earlier this year, Tennessee became the first state to pass a law that allows for the criminal prosecution of pregnant women who use illegal drugs during pregnancy.  The law declares that miscarriage, stillbirth, and birth defects are grounds for police to conduct an investigation and levy charges against a woman that could possibly put her in prison for up to 15 years.  The bill specifically states that “nothing shall preclude prosecution of a woman 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.”  Women who seek treatment and stick with the treatment program are immune from prosecution.

The bill has sparked fierce debates about the fact that incarceration and the threat of incarceration are ineffective at reducing the incidence of alcohol or drug abuse, the inaccessibility of treatment programs for poor and marginalized women, and whether or not the threat of incarceration will prevent some women from seeking out prenatal care.  Many also feel that the law has the potential to disproportionately negatively affect minorities.

Despite this controversy, Think Progress is reporting that the state of Tennessee has arrested the first woman under the new law, which has only been in effect a little more than a week.  Mallory Loyola gave birth to a baby girl at the beginning of July and was arrested two days later despite the fact that there is no evidence that she used narcotic drugs while pregnant or caused harm to her child.  Local news reports have revealed that she tested positive for methamphetamine, which she admitted to smoking days before giving birth.  Methamphetamine is not an opiate.  This means that Loyola did not have a narcotic in her system as the new law states she must have narcotics in her system in order to be subject to investigation and/or arrest; there is also no apparent injury to her child, which the law also specifically states must be present for authorities to have grounds for investigation and arrest.

Executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women Lynn Paltrow states, ‘The 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.”  As Think Progress points out, there is not scientific evidence that unequivocally proves that use of illegal drugs while pregnant causes serious long term effects to a child.  The article states, “In fact, studies have found that exposing fetuses to cocaine, meth, and opiates is about as harmful as exposing them to cigarettes.”

What is just as disturbing as the law stripping women of their fundamental rights to privacy and autonomy upon becoming pregnant is that, according to Think Progress, “the criminalization of pregnant women disproportionately impacts low-income women of color who often end up losing custody of their children.”  The majority of cases tracked by the NAPW have involved mothers who are black.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Tennessee is currently challenging the new law, and the arrest of Loyola on grounds not even allowed by the law will most likely only serve to bolster their case.