A woman in Tennessee was first to be arrested under the so-called Pregnancy Criminalization Law, which allows prosecutors to charge a woman with criminal assault if she uses illegal drugs during her pregnancy and her baby is considered harmed as a result. Mallory Loyola, 26, gave birth to a girl last week who tested positive for amphetamine. According to an ABC News affiliate, Loyola admitted to smoking methamphetamine several days before giving birth and also tested positive for the drug. Charged under the new law, which went into effect one week prior to her arrest, Mallory could face a penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine of $2,500 if found guilty of this misdemeanor offence. A local judge set her bail at $2,000, jail officials told WBIR, while Loyola's court date is arranged for later this month.
The Tennessee bill, SB 1391, was passed in response to fears about babies being exposed to opiates in utero. A newborn who is exposed to addictive prescription or illegal drugs while in the mother’s womb may develop neonatal abstinence syndrome. The law has a provision calling for reassessment in two years, after public health officials have had time to gather data assessing the law's impact on babies and mothers.
The bill passed with bipartisan majorities in both the house and senate of Tennessee, according to the Nashville Scene. Unusually, every senate Democrat voted in favor of the bill, with seven opposing votes logged by Republicans. Supporters believe the bill places value on the lives of children who are defenseless and deserving of protection. Supporters also say the law acts as a "velvet hammer," one that might convince addicted mothers to get help: They can avoid jail time by entering and completing a drug treatment program.
Opponents believe the law will result in the disproportionate targeting and jailing of poor mothers and mothers of color, particularly in rural districts throughout the state, as these women lack access to health care and treatment facilities. Some believe the bill will only hurt the babies; a mother who fears a jail sentence may refuse to get help when her infant shows signs of drug dependence. Signs of neonatal abstinence syndrome, including diarrhea, fever, and seizures, may first appear up 10 days after a baby is born.
Governor Bill Haslam said in a statement he was aware of concerns expressed by opponents. “In reviewing this bill, I have had extensive conversations with experts including substance abuse, mental health, health and law enforcement officials," Haslam noted. "The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs."