What Are Mothers to Do? How a New Tennessee Law Criminalizes Pregnancy and Promotes Religion

Photo by sumners / 123RF

No one would dispute that taking illegal drugs during pregnancy is detrimental to both a woman and her fetus. While reports of severely impaired “crack babies” have been overblown and the dangers of “fetal alcohol syndrome” likely have more to do with persistent poverty, poor nutrition and substandard prenatal healthcare than the occasional glass of wine, the medical community obviously does not recommend using intoxicating substances while pregnant. But does this mean that women who use drugs while pregnant are criminals?

According to a Tennessee law that went into effect this month, they are. A week ago, the media reported that 26-year-old Mallory Loyola was the first woman to be charged with assault under the new legislation, when just two days after the birth of her daughter, a urine test revealed that she had used methamphetamine while pregnant. Even though, as of this writing, her daughter has not been reported to have experienced any adverse effects from drug, Loyola was separated from her child and thrown in jail. Tennessee officials claim that the law will help combat the growing number of infants born dependent on narcotics in the state, but critics argue that the law harms women’s health while infringing on their civil rights. An examination of the Tennessee law reveals that it is based on poor reasoning and religious ideology, which should ring alarm bells for humanists concerned with women’s rights.

Ostensibly, the law should encourage pregnant women who are addicts to seek treatment. However, with the threat of imprisonment if they come forward hanging over their heads, most women are actually deterred from finding addiction help. Tennessee also currently has a shortage of drug treatment facilities. This, coupled with the state’s failure to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act makes treatment difficult to access, especially for poor women living in rural areas. A Google search of counseling centers for drug addiction in the state also reveals that the majority of these facilities are faith-based, which can be alienating to atheist, humanist and other nontheist women who may be seeking help for an addiction. If Tennessee wants to assist pregnant women who are addicted to drugs in finding treatment, the more logical response might be to increase access to healthcare facilities, including secular addiction counseling centers that rely on scientifically-based forms of treatment. Shaming women for suffering from the disease of addiction and frightening them with threats of imprisonment will not help them have healthy pregnancies.

In addition to endangering the health of the women that it claims to help, the Tennessee law also sets a dangerous precedent that women should be held responsible and even criminalized for any problems that occur during their pregnancies. What sets this particular law apart from other drug laws, which usually only criminalize possessing and selling drugs, is that the woman is charged for assaulting her fetus. However, this Tennessee law and the case brought against Loyola are very similar to a growing number of cases in which women’s miscarriages have been investigated by the state and pregnant women have been arrested for falling down stairs or refusing to take certain types of medications. These measures promote “fetal personhood,” the idea that a fetus is deserving of the same rights as a person and that its supposed civil rights trump those of its mother. Legislation surrounding fetal personhood is frequently supported by religious anti-abortion groups. One such group, Personhood USA, a 501(c)4 nonprofit advocacy organization in favor of the Tennessee law, states that its position hinges on the notion that “all human beings [are] persons who are ‘created in the image of God’ from the beginning of their biological development, without exceptions.” These groups advocate for laws based on their religious beliefs, and in the case of the Tennessee law, they often get their way.

Humanism, unlike the religious ideas behind fetal personhood, applies reason and nuance to issues such as drug addiction. While drug use among pregnant women is troublesome, reason and experience would indicate that the solution should not be simply to lock these women up but to increase access to treatment. Humanism is also able to look beyond the scientifically dubious concept of fetal personhood and consider legislation that would support women and their pregnancies without infringing upon women’s civil rights. Drug addiction is a complex social problem, and dealing with it in a way that truly benefits women and their families requires viewing women as human beings, not as criminals.

Tags: ,