Drug users often face the potential for criminal charges and other legal problems for their drug use. However, most drug users can seek treatment for their abuse without worrying about being arrested. A new law in Tennessee criminalizes drug addicts who are pregnant, which was created to try to reduce the number of children born addicted to drugs. Many experts criticize this action, saying that it will prevent women from seeking help for fear of being arrested. Recently, the first woman was jailed under this new law, Mallory Layola. She was arrested two days after giving birth to her daughter for testing positive to methamphetamine.
What the Law Entails
The law in Tennessee was passed as a measure to deal with the state's alarming problem of children being born with narcotic addiction. There were 855 newborns that suffered withdrawal last year. The state has tried over the past few years to find and implement solutions, and this law is their latest attempt at solving the problem. Under this law, taking drugs while pregnant is considered an assault, which makes it a criminal offense. In order for a woman to be prosecuted, the child must be harmed by or addicted to the drug. The law does allow women charged to use a completed treatment program as part of their defense.
Why it Could Hurt Rather than Help
One of the biggest problems experts have with this law is that it could actually prevent women from seeking help, thereby actually increasing the problem rather than curtailing it. Pregnant women who have a drug problem will be scared to seek help, because they could be put in jail, separated from their child, or placed in a mental institution. They will also be scared to seek prenatal care for their unborn child, which puts the child at risk of more health problems beyond just being born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS. If these women do go somewhere for any type of treatment, they will most likely lie to avoid the consequences.
Tennessee also has a shortage of treatment beds, making treatment difficult to access at the best of times, especially for the underprivileged. If a woman is also afraid of ending up in jail, she might not even try to get the help she needs.
Similar laws have been considered by other states over the years, but most do not pass it because of the numerous medical groups that advise against it. Since 1990, trusted associations such as the March of Dimes, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association have advised against arresting pregnant women because it would discourage women to seek help. They believe that addiction is a chronic disease that requires treatment, not penalty.
Lack of Support
Mothers who are arrested under this new law go to jail, rather than getting the treatment they need to overcome their problem. While in jail, the mothers will not undergo any treatment for their addiction, and they will also not learn how to be healthier and become a good parent. When they get out of jail, they will often have the same problems, if not additional problems. Their children will be sent into foster care or given to another family member. This situation may not be any better for the child. Both mother and child potentially face nothing but a lack of support, rather than being able to find the help they both need.
National and state critics are against the passing of this law. The federal government is moving away from criminalizing drug addiction in order to focus more on getting addicts the help they need, rather than punishing them. It is more important to get these women the help they need to overcome their addiction, rather than punishing them for their disease.