|ANOTHER HAPPY LEGISLATOR IN TENNESSEE |
UPON PASSAGE OF A NEW BILL TO SEND "THE WORST OF THE WORST' MOMS TO JAIL
...this type of prosecution of pregnant women goes back decades. The first incidences can be traced to the beginnings of the war on drugs in the 1980s and ’90s, when the attention was primarily on the over-hyped and misinformed “crack baby” epidemic. In that era, mostly black women were being targeted for using crack cocaine during pregnancy. Back then, they were often charged under existing laws that hadn’t been written with pregnant women in mind—such as child abuse laws, or laws prohibiting the sale of drugs to a minor. Tennessee has taken things a step further with a law crafted specifically to criminalize pregnant women with drug problems.
There was little evidence during the initial crack baby hysteria that in-utero exposure to the drug actually had long-term negative consequences. But a longitudinal study published last year proved outright that children exposed to crack cocaine during pregnancy did no worse in life than their peers from similar neighborhoods. The study showed that, in reality, the thing to blame for the often poor outcomes of these children was not drugs, but rather poverty. Scholar Dorothy Roberts, in an appearance on “All In with Chris Hayes” this week, recounts this history.
In early July, 26-year-old Mallory Loyola gave birth to a baby girl. Two days later, the state of Tennessee charged her with assault. Loyola is the first woman to be arrested under the new law. The new mom had tested positive for meth. Interestingly though, the new law said nothing about meth. Meth is not considered to be a narcotic, which is a legal class of drugs that refers to opiates like heroin and prescription painkillers. Tennessee’s new law was passed specifically in response to fears about babies being exposed to opiates in utero. Loyola was separated from her child and thrown in jail. You may not like meth. I may not like meth, but it needs to be pointed out here according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, there "is no syndrome or disorder that can specifically be identified for babies who were exposed in utero to methamphetamine."
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. There’s no injury. There’s just a positive drug test.
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. 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.
Advocates for pregnant women say the bill will only scare women away from seeking prenatal care and addiction treatment, and that it does nothing to help low-income mothers who may not be able to take time away from their families and jobs to seek treatment. According to RH Reality Check, only two of Tennessee's 177 addiction treatment facilities provide on-site prenatal care and allow older children to stay with their mothers.
Our state chooses to waste tax dollars locking up women instead of getting them the health care they need. We are already receiving reports of women seeking out non-licensed health providers to avoid having a medical record and risking arrest. This is extremely dangerous.
A study by NAPW of the arrests and prosecutions of pregnant women from 1973 to 2005 found that African-American women were “significantly more likely to be arrested, reported to state authorities by hospital staff, and subjected to felony charges.” Part of what influences this bias is the fact that there is no consistent policy regarding drug testing of pregnant women, which means it is left up to the discretion of hospital personnel. Often, a trigger for testing is a complication with the birth, such as a low infant birth weight or premature delivery. These are things for which women of color, particularly black women, are already at higher risk. As a result, black women in particular face higher levels of scrutiny than white women—leading to more prosecutions under these types of laws.
I can almost guarantee that this [law] will be used disproportionately against African-American women because, even though we know that fewer African-American women than white women use drugs, they are more likely to be blamed for the outcomes of their pregnancies.
As I reported in my book the government has long been on a mission to reduce women to vessels for pregnancy. In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines instructing all women of childbearing age—whether they were pregnant or not, whether they even had plans to become pregnant or not—to care for their "pre-conception" health. Starting as soon as girls got their first period until they hit menopause, the CDC said that women should take folic acids, not smoke or "misuse" alcohol, refrain from drug use, avoid "high-risk sexual behavior" and maintain a healthy weight. (There go my 20s!) What could happen if a woman didn't follow these guidelines and had a miscarriage or stillbirth? Could she be sent to jail, too?