[guest post by Dana]
Beginning July 1 of this year, a strongly opposed bill signed earlier this year by Governor Haslam went into effect. The language of the bill states:
As enacted, provides 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; law expires July 1, 2016.
According to Haslam:
The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs.
Tennessee has been attempting to find a way to deal with the increasing number of babies born addicted to drugs and suffering from a condition known as Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome There were 921 cases of NAS in the state last year.
The legislation would allow mothers to avoid criminal charges if they get into one of the state’s few treatment programs. Haslam said he wants doctors to encourage women to get into treatment before delivering their babies so they can avoid charges.
Several weeks weeks ago, the first woman was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault under the new law. She was subsequently released on $2,000 bail.
However, while Mallory Loyola admitted smoking meth a few days before delivery, and both mom and baby tested positive for the drug, methamphetamine is not considered a narcotic by the U.S. National Library of Medicine nor by the Drug Enforcement Agency/List of Controlled Substances.
The Food and Drug Administration puts methamphetamine (a.k.a. Desoxyn) and other amphetamines (e.g., Adderall) in Pregnancy Category C, meaning animal studies using doses much higher than people generally take have shown adverse effects on fetuses, but “there are no adequate and well-controlled studies in humans.” Doctors will prescribe drugs in Category C, which include antidepressants such as Prozac and Zoloft, for pregnant women if they believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
This unique situation, of course, begs a few questions: Is it reasonable to believe that by criminalizing drug use when pregnant, a woman would be deterred from using, given that the laws already on the book are not deterring her? Also, given that the language of the bill refers specifically to “narcotics” and meth is not a narcotic, was Loyola’s arrest justified? And, based on the documented dangers and impact of alcohol use during pregnancy, why does its use not face the same legal scrutiny? Finally, does this put a hypocritical restraint on a woman’s right to choose: If a Tennessee woman has the legal right to terminate a pregnancy, why should using drugs while pregnant be criminalized? Aren’t both actions not in the best interest of the baby and its protection? And while one action obviously intends to kill the baby, the other action has a potential to *only* damage the baby, not necessarily end its life.
With that, meet Deborah Jiang-Stein who opposes the bill. Jiang-Stein was born addicted to heroin:
I’m told the first months of my life were torture. I screamed constantly, spat out milk, and vomited all the time. I was going through withdrawal.
She goes on to describe her mother as having used drugs as a teen, and in fact, gave birth to Jiang-Stein in prison. Jiang-Stein remained with her mother in prison until she was adopted a year later. She notes that while some see her story as a success – “government gone right” – she views it differently:
My biological mother, my foster parents, and my adoptive parents didn’t get the support they needed to tend to my medical and mental health needs. Though I survived developmental delays, I slipped into multiple drug addictions in my teens as my way to cope with the losses, trauma, and sorrow. Drugs were all I knew to self-medicate.
I’ve been clean 20 years. But I now know that addiction is a physical and mental health disease, and not a criminal justice problem.
Jiang-Stein believes that the Tennessee law, rather than helping a drug using mother, instead sentences two generations at a time and continues a cycle of trauma. She cites the increasingly high numbers of mothers with children under 18 incarcerated for drug use, and sums up her opposition:
The new law in Tennessee simply feeds a pipeline of foster care, and does nothing to treat the core problem of addiction. Further, it traumatizes mothers and their newborns, who need stability, not prison time. This law will keep pregnant women who are using drugs away from prenatal care. A better policy would provide drug treatment, medical and mental health services, and job skills training.
In essence, Jiang-Stein and others who oppose the law, believe addiction isn’t a crime, but rather a public health and mental health issue, and that it should be treated through various forms of rehab, not through the criminalization of pregnant drug users.
*I use only as a convenient tool for comparison. It should go without saying that only does not in any way attempt to minimize the horrific damage that a mother’s drug use can do to her baby in the womb.