ACLU Fights for Women's Right to Use Methamphetamines While Pregnant

MADISONVILLE, Tenn., July 11 (UPI) -- Mallory Loyola of Madisonville, Tennessee, arrested and charged with simple assault Tuesday, is the first woman to face prosecution under a new state law criminalizing drug use while pregnant.

Loyola and the daughter she gave birth to on Sunday at the University of Tennessee Medical Center both tested positive for amphetamines, according to officials with the Monroe Country Sheriff's Office, who say Loyola admitted to smoking meth just a few days before her daughter was delivered.

"It's sad to see a child not getting an opportunity to come drug-free and given a chance. We want to see our children have a chance in life," said Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens. "Children need the chance, and it's sad when you see children who come out born into the world already addicted to drugs."

According to the Tennessean, the law, signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in April, which took effect July 1, states "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."

But methamphetamine, while illegal, is not technically a narcotic -- a class of drugs that includes heroin, methadone, and other opiates like prescription pain killers, as well as some tranquilizers and sleeping pills, and generally refers to any psycho-active compound that induces sleep (meth does not induce sleep) -- a distinction quickly pointed out by groups who oppose the new law.

"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," Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) Lynn Paltrow told ThinkProgress. "There's no injury. There's just a positive drug test."

While the language in the law refers specifically to "illegal narcotics," the spirit of the legislation was meant to prevent neonatal abstinence syndrome, a condition wherein a baby born addicted to a substance goes through withdrawal symptoms. And though neonatal abstinence syndrome can occur with opioids, depressants, benzodiazepines, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), stimulants like cocaine and meth, which act differently on the central nervous system, do not cause neonatal withdrawal despite Sheriff Bivens' lament about children born into addiction.

Along with NAPW, a host of other healthcare and women's organizations have come out against the legislation, noting the law discourages addicted mothers from seeking medical care and possibly encourages some to seek care from unlicensed providers.

In addition to viewing punitive measures against addicted mothers as draconian, a waste of tax revenue, and ineffective at addressing the underlying addiction, critics also point out the legislation unfairly targets minorities and lower socio-economic groups which have statistically higher rates of addiction.

To boot, many also take issue with the laws impingement on women's reproductive freedom.

"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 said. "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."

The ACLU of Tennessee is planning to challenge the law and has issued a call for plaintiffs.

"By focusing on punishing women rather than promoting healthy pregnancies, the state is only deterring women struggling with alcohol or drug dependency from seeking the pre-natal care they need," the group's legal director Thomas Castelli said in a statement. "This dangerous law unconstitutionally singles out new mothers struggling with addiction for criminal assault charges."


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