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The first arrest applying a new Tennessee law that charges a woman with assault for taking illegal drugs while pregnant has sparked backlash from civil rights groups.
Mallory Loyola, 26, was arrested Tuesday, two days after giving birth to a baby girl, because she and her newborn tested positive for methamphetamine, Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens said.
“A woman may be prosecuted for assault for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug,” reads a law passed on July 1.
“Addiction is a very complex issue, and we need to make sure we are doing all that we can to care for our fellow Tennesseans,” said Tennessee Department of Mental Health Commissioner E. Douglas Varney.
But women’s rights and civil rights groups don’t think the law effectively cares for women who are addicted to drugs, and they said Loyola’s case proves their argument.
“The state’s newly expanded fetal assault law is designed to humiliate and punish, not treat or protect,” said a statement from the group, National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
In this specific case, the group said, the law doesn't even apply. The law stipulates that a new mother can be charged if she was using narcotics while pregnant, and Loyola was not, it said. Methamphetamine is a stimulant, not a narcotic, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women said as a result of Loyola’s arrest, the group has already received calls from pregnant women “paralyzed with fear” from seeking prenatal care because they don’t want to risk getting arrested.
In a letter to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, urging him to veto the law, The ACLU pointed out that the American Academy of Pediatrics has founded, “punitive measures taken toward pregnant women, such as criminal prosecution and incarceration, have no proven benefits for infant health.”
“By focusing on punishing women rather than promoting healthy pregnancies, the state is only deterring women struggling with alcohol or drug dependency from seeking the pre-natal care they need,” said Thomas H. Castelli, legal director of the Tennessee ACLU in response to Loyola’s arrest.
Bivens said he thinks the law will have the opposite effect, and motivate addicted mothers-to-be to seek care.
"I think people need to be accountable for their actions, especially when you have another human being about to be born into this world," Bivens said.
More than 900 infants experienced drug withdrawal in Tennessee in 2013, according to the state's Department of Health. Bivens said that number "saddens" him and he hopes the new law "is for the betterment of the child."
Loyola is being held at the Monroe County Jail on $2,000 bond. Bivens said he does not know if she's been offered treatment, or where the baby is being cared for.