Why is it considered assault when a mother-to-be harms her unborn child by taking drugs, yet it is perfectly legal for a woman to outright terminate her pregnancy? What exactly determines personhood? Is it whether or not the baby is wanted?
These are the confounding questions a new Tennessee law raises.
Mallory Loyola, 26, is the first to be charged under a recently passed state law that classifies drug use during pregnancy as assault. Loyola was just released on $2,000 bail and charged with a misdemeanor offense after she and her newborn baby tested positive for meth.
This law, which took effect last week, aims to protect the health and well-being of unborn babies by pushing addicted women to receive the help they need. Those convicted face up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine. However, an affirmative defense is allowed for mothers who are able to show they sought treatment while pregnant and successfully completed it after giving birth.
Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens explains, “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… Hopefully it will send a signal to other women who are pregnant and have a drug problem to seek help. That’s what we want them to do."
Opponents of the law say that criminalizing the status of being a drug-addict will only drive women away from treatment and the threat of jail will discourage visiting a doctor for basic prenatal care. Civil rights groups claim that it unfairly affects minorities and the poor by targeting street drugs while failing to address alcohol and prescription drug abuse.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is actively seeking a plaintiff to challenge the law. The director of the ACLU, Thomas Casetelli, says, “This dangerous law unconstitutionally singles out new mothers struggling with addiction for criminal assault charges.”
The state legislature strongly supported the bill, passing it 26 to seven in the state Senate and 64 to 30 with one abstain in the House. All seven senators who opposed the bill were Republican and stated that a lack of access to treatment centers would be a major obstacle for constituents in rural districts.
Remember, The United States is just one of four nations where a woman can have an abortion for any reason at any time during her nine months of pregnancy. In a country with one of the most radical abortion policies in the world, it is ironic to see a bill of this kind passed.