Tennessee Law Raises Pregnancy Rights Questions


Tennessee women who use drugs during their pregnancy can be criminally charged for harm done to their infants under a new law that went into effect July 1. That month, Mallory Loyola, 26, became the first woman charged with assault for testing positive on a drug test after giving birth.

Doctors, addiction experts, reproductive health groups and national medical associations, including the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, all cautioned Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam against signing the bill, citing concerns that it would scare women out of seeking care or drug treatment while pregnant.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that calls for an end to the “war on drugs,” says the state’s lack of adequate drug treatment facilities means that the law will disproportionately affect poor women and women of color. It says this law criminalizes a woman’s behavior, punishing her for drug use and addiction, rather than finding treatment options, especially during pregnancy.

So what does this mean for women’s rights, especially during pregnancy? Will pregnant women be tested for caffeine next? Or nicotine? Advocates of this law say that it will only be used to prosecute “the worst of the worst”—women addicted to hard drugs who refuse treatment.

“We oppose this law because it is counterproductive and unjust,” says Farah Diaz-Tello, attorney with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “Addiction is a disease, and diseases are not responsive to threats and punishment. Forty years of a drug war that seeks to address addiction by locking people up hasn’t worked for the general population. There is no reason to believe it will work for pregnant women. Lawmakers and police seem to think that you can just threaten or punish people into stopping using, or that people who can’t or don’t seek help are immoral. What is immoral is conducting this sort of social experiment that will have a tangible negative impact on women’s lives. Pregnant women who are facing addiction need health care, not handcuffs.”

Major medical organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Public Health Association, oppose efforts to arrest pregnant women who use drugs.