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two sides, same coin: should women be charged with assault if they use illegal drugs while pregnant?

Image: Mahalie Stackpole via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Mahalie Stackpole via Wikimedia Commons

“NO”By Kaylia Payne

On July 8, Mallory Loyola was the first person to be charged under a new Tennessee law that classifies drug use during pregnancy as assault to the foetus. The law stipulates 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.’ Now while I hate to admit it, I can see why this law came into existence. I have to confess that my blood boils when I see a pregnant women binge drinking, and it can be easy to let our emotions cloud our judgement. But when we look at these new laws with a clear head, it becomes much more difficult to defend them.

First, while I’m not usually a fan of the slippery slope argument (as it can lead to outlandish claims such as ‘bringing back euthanasia will lead to doctors killing anyone and everyone for no good reason’) here I do believe that it is applicable.  Once you start classifying harm to a foetus as “assault”, where do you draw the line? At smoking while pregnant? At drinking while pregnant? At eating shellfish while pregnant? Not to mention the fact that once you call harming an unborn child “assault”, the right of a woman to obtain an abortion starts to comes into question. While I’m certainly not about to advocate using meth while pregnant, I also recognise that it is the woman’s body and therefore the woman’s prerogative to make their own choices regarding it.

Second, criminalising drug use during pregnancy is counter-productive, as it will ultimately lead to less women feeling safe to seek help. The money that will be spent enforcing the law and prosecuting new mothers would be much better spent on health services for pregnant women with drug dependency. The law does not take the struggles of the mother into consideration, with the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Terry Lynn Waver, quoted as saying: ‘These ladies are the worst of the worst. Again, I want to emphasise what they are thinking about, and that is just money for their next high.’

Contrary to popular belief, most drug users aren’t the thieving, heartless criminals that Weaver, and indeed this law, makes them out to be. Addiction is not a flaw in the individual that can be overcome through deterrence policies. Rather, it’s a systemic issue, characterised by class and race inequalities; and one that needs to be addressed through legislation that supports treatment and ensures equitable access to appropriate rehabilitation programs without fear of prosecution or having their child/rent taken from them should rehabilitation not be immediately effective.

I’m not saying that newborns addicted to or harmed by narcotics is a good thing, and were I to work in the hospital system I’m sure I would have a difficult time remaining impartial. Nonetheless, even if you don’t agree with the idea that a woman retains the right to make personal choices while pregnant, it is apparent that punishing rather than assisting drug-dependent mothers will only make things worse. What they and their child need is support, and laws like this only ensure that this support will be even more difficult to obtain.

“YES” – By Junene Taylor

In Tennessee, 26-year-old new mum Mallory Loyola was arrested and charged with assault because she admitted to using methamphetamine several days before giving birth. A new law in Tennessee 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.’  While it isn’t clear yet if Loyola’s baby girl has suffered due to her mother’s drug use, there is one thing that is crystal clear to me: Loyola deserves to be arrested, charged and convicted.

People who rally against the law, like the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, believe that arresting mothers for drug use is stripping away the rights of the mother to do whatever she wants to and with her body. I am all for women’s rights and ordinarily I would be on the side of the NAPW, but I think they got it wrong this time. What about the babies’ rights? I am all for a woman’s right to choose but once you choose to have the child, to carry it to term and deliver, than shouldn’t you also choose to be as healthy as possible as to not harm the life you chose to keep? Or is it just silly of me to think that?

Even if Loyola’s baby doesn’t suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, she does suffer in another way: her mother uses meth. Let that sink in: Baby Loyola has a drug addict for a mother.  Allegedly.

Why is this not cause for concern? How come no one seems to care that there are babies being born to addicts who choose not to seek help? Some organisations say pregnant women who use illegal drugs should get ‘Healthcare Not Handcuffs.’ And while that is a very cute slogan, I feel that these women should get both. Bingeing on ice cream, parking closer to your destination, that warm glow – those should be acceptable pregnancy perks.  Meth, cocaine, heroin – not so much.  In Loyola’s case, people are up in arms because meth is technically not a narcotic. Insert eye roll here. It is still METH! I believe the specific wording of the law is flawed, but not the law itself.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee said in a statement: ‘This dangerous law unconstitutionally singles out new mothers struggling with addiction for criminal assault charges.’ Just because a woman is pregnant does not mean she gets a free pass to be an addict. If she wasn’t pregnant, she would be arrested and charged like any other criminal. Harbouring a fetus shouldn’t change that. So I say, arrest these women, give them the help they need, and then convict them.

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